Columbia World Projects

April 11, 2017

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

I am writing to announce a new and important development in the evolution of the University.  Over the past two years, I have been holding discussions among numerous faculty, deans, and distinguished guests all focused on this essential question: How can we at Columbia (and in the academic community more broadly) better connect with the world at-large where laws and policies are made, actions taken, and norms and attitudes shaped?  The answer we have come to—which has been unanimously endorsed by the Trustees at our most recent meeting in March—is to build out a new purpose of the University explicitly dedicated to this goal, by creating a new institution presently called Columbia World Projects (CWP).  What follows here is an abbreviated description of the theory and design of CWP.  More details will be shared as we set off on this path.  

There are three major steps in the thinking leading to Columbia World Projects, beginning with an understanding of the strengths and potential strengths of research universities, from there moving into the state of the world and its pressing needs, and then, finally, to the general design of CWP.  

It is indisputably the case, and, I think, widely understood to be true, that higher education in the United States is among the most successful institutions ever created.  For proof, one can point to universities’ longevity compared to other organizations, to the ever-increasing demand for what we offer, to the contributions to society of our graduates, and to the notable fact that nearly everything that enhances human understanding and modern life had its origins in our libraries, offices, and laboratories.  It is a matter of great pride to us that Columbia stands among the very best of these institutions.

But the unique and highly decentralized structure of universities leaves largely unresolved a profound issue: How do we connect the enormously valuable intellectual work of the university to have the greatest possible impact on the problems of our time?  What are the mechanisms, the structures, by which academic knowledge is woven into the life of the broader society and the world?  Apart from the limited area of commercialization of discoveries (where universities have created offices to assist), for the most part we leave these questions to individual faculty to figure out.  Sometimes we form groups, centers, or institutes to encourage connections between different faculty members, schools, and departments, and to focus closely on particular challenges.  What universities have not yet done is create institutions that aim, across a broad range of specific topics, to connect academic work and the broad capacities of the academic community with organizations and parties beyond the academy that possess the power and influence to transform all this into concrete consequences benefitting humanity.  This is the purpose of Columbia World Projects.  

The second step in the conception of CWP directs our attention to the needs of the world at-large.  Under ordinary circumstances, it would make good sense for universities to be more systematic and structured in making these connections, but in the current environment, it is a moral imperative.  The world is undergoing highly significant points of stress.  The extraordinary developments in recent decades of greater and greater interconnectedness—through increased economic activity, digital communications, and movements of peoples (both involuntary and voluntary)—have created or accelerated highly complex problems, and have given rise to political movements favoring a reversal or change of course.  But the world lacks the public goods—the institutions, leadership, and knowledge—needed to address these conflicts and human needs.  The multilateral institutions created in the period following the Second World War are straining under new realities.  There are rising anxieties about the capacities of democracies to resolve tensions in an increasingly pluralistic world, and, in several places, a pronounced turn toward authoritarianism.  We are suffering from an intellectual deficit about how to build a better home for all mankind.  And if the nature and quality of thought and debate in the public sphere continues to decline, the eventual result will be an existential threat to the fundamental characteristics of universities at a time when their distinctive capacities are all the more essential.  All of this calls out for universities to become more involved.  Universities bring to the public sphere what no other institutions, organizations, or groups can.  We are independent, non-partisan, long-term in perspective, objective, grounded in evidence and facts and knowledge, and moved to serve the public good. 

If, then, there are greater possibilities for making connections and a moral imperative to make those connections, how should we set about doing that?  A good place to begin is with Columbia World Projects.  Part of its purpose would be to create an infrastructure to nurture and assist faculty and student efforts to forge closer connections between academic work and solving human problems.  This means space (currently planned in the new Forum building in Manhattanville), teaching and staff support, project management capabilities, and legal, financial, and fundraising assistance.  We have already identified, and will be enhancing, a group of highly distinguished external people ready to lend a hand in promoting this venture.  There are many faculty members and groups at Columbia already doing this sort of bridging work, and CWP will provide another supportive and welcoming environment for them.  CWP will allow us to bring together, and thereby amplify, the various initiatives we already have in place: for example, the Earth Institute, the Global Centers, the Committee on Global Thought, the Institute for Ideas and Imagination, Columbia Global Reports, and the Data Science Institute.  Additionally, CWP will itself take on and sponsor major projects constructed around this larger ambition to solve problems in our home city, around the nation, and across the globe.  

The criteria for these capstone projects would be along the following lines: The problem must be one on which there has been, and can continue to be, important scholarly research, in areas where Columbia faculty have established significant leadership, and around which we might organize the broader academic community to participate.  There must be outside partners who respect the need for academic contributions, who have the power or capacity to bring about action, and who are willing to work together with us.  And, most importantly, at the end of the project there must be an identifiable and well-articulated solution that can reasonably be achieved within a discrete time frame (more or less five years).  This last requirement is intended to impose discipline on a system that could otherwise naturally drift into inaction.  The problems should be ones that would not be addressed absent this kind of partnership and collaboration.  As part of shaping the CWP concept, we have already begun defining a few initial projects (summaries to follow), as well as designing a process for identifying new ones.

There are many further issues to be addressed.  How will projects be identified and developed?  (We have an extensive consultation process underway for a test set of possible projects, and we plan to launch an open application process beginning next academic year.)  What counts as a “solution”?  (New laws or policies?; advancements in what we know?; changes in attitudes?)  How will we organize academic work beyond Columbia?  How will we avoid involving the University in taking or appearing to take a political position?  These and other matters are serious and deserving of more thought, but a consensus has emerged in our discussions thus far that these questions can be worked through.  

In order to become a truly vital part of the University, as well as an effective bridge to the outside world, CWP will be much more than just a collection or portfolio of projects to be managed.  It must also be a flourishing center of intellectual life in its own right.  There are many questions about the world, about how it works and might work, that are not necessarily asked, or answered, within the intellectual framework of our existing fields and disciplines, even when we imagine doing “interdisciplinary” work.  (One of the additional benefits of the projects will be to provide the lived experiences sometimes needed for new scholarship to begin and thrive.)  CWP will offer the chance to build up the study of implementation.  It is equally important to note that there must be many educational and experiential opportunities for student participation, and we already are beginning to plan for their close involvement.  We also envision CWP sponsoring regular open events, and being home to a group of fellows appointed for terms.  A fuller version of CWP’s intellectual program will be announced in due course. 
There are three final points I would like to stress.  First, the concept of CWP calls for broad University participation, which means not only engaging the sciences, engineering, and technology, where the language of “problems” and “solutions” may seem to have a more natural fit, but also, and importantly, the arts, the social sciences across their range, and the humanities.  Second, CWP will not detract from our mission of fundamental research.  And, third, CWP will stand on its own in terms of its finances.  Already, we have raised a significant pool of funds; these should benefit the regular functions of the University as well as supporting CWP.  

Let me close by saying that harnessing the power of the University in this new way will take time.  CWP will be proven, or not, through its achievements.  I believe that adding this purpose to the University’s mission fits with Columbia’s unique intellectual character, its history, and its location.  That we would be the first to set out in this direction makes me very proud, and I am grateful to everyone who has helped to conceive of this idea and bring us to this exciting point.  


Lee C. Bollinger