Expanding the Campus Conversation about Equal Justice

January 23, 2015

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:
This week’s national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. arrives at a troubling time for America, at a moment of national reflection on the realities of race in our society.  The present cause may be the response of the judicial system to the deaths of black citizens in encounters with the police, including in our own city, but those issues only touch on a far wider set of societal problems and concerns.  The simple and hard fact is that, for all the real progress in the nation since the march from Selma and the passage of historic civil rights and voting rights legislation, we still as a country are afflicted by the profound and tragic legacies of a long history of invidious racial discrimination on the bases of race and ethnicities.  
I have personally been involved with, and written about, the inequities in our public education system and the responsibilities and hopes of our universities in light of the past and present.  Far from living in a supposed “post-racial” society, there is a pervasive re-segregation of our schools, so that many systems today, North as much as South, are as racially segregated as at the time of the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, more than sixty years ago.  We do, indeed, have a long way to go.  
Now, the question for a great research university like Columbia, whose students, faculty, and alumni have long played such monumental roles in the quest for civil and human rights and social justice, is: what can we do in the ways of research, teaching, and public understanding to contribute to the fundamental changes that still must occur if our nation is finally to transcend the past and live up to its founding principles?
To help answer this question I have asked our new Executive Vice President for University Life, Suzanne Goldberg, to convene a student-faculty advisory committee to develop a slate of programs to add to those that naturally occur on our campus which consider issues of race, ethnicity, and equal justice in our society.  We should have discussions across campus to help us understand these critical issues better than we do.  To be at Columbia is to experience the wealth of knowledge and expertise we have in these areas of our national life, and it would be enormously beneficial for us all to draw on that wealth and see what we can learn collectively.
Let us use these months ahead to apply the intellectual power and passion for improving our society in ways that not only make Columbia better, but also to realize the promise of our nation’s core principles and, as Dr. King memorably said, to bend the arc of history towards justice.
Lee C. Bollinger