Fourth Purpose Task Force Report and Recommendations

February 25, 2021

I write to you with an update about an essential step in our evolutionary process as an institution, one that I hope will solidify Columbia at the forefront of solving some of the great challenges of our time.

In September 2019, I proposed that it was time the University embrace and foster what we have called the Fourth Purpose of institutions like ours—namely, the advancement of human welfare through the complex process of merging scholarly knowledge and our distinctive intellectual capacities with groups and institutions beyond the academy that respect what we do, possess the skills and power to bring about change, and are dedicated to doing that work in partnership with us. This mission both complements and interacts positively with the three more traditionally articulated purposes of universities—research, education and service—and already exists in several forms and venues within the academy: in fields of medicine and public health, where we see it most vividly realized; in the choices of many faculty, either alone or in small groups; and, since the 1980s, in the domain of technology transfer where academic ideas are commercialized.

The newest manifestation of this purpose is in Columbia World Projects, which under the leadership of Nick Lemann, and soon Wafaa El-Sadr, has created a vibrant platform for the development of concrete projects, drawing on the work of our faculty, and for thinking about major questions and issues uniquely possible in this stimulating context bridging knowledge and action. But there are many others. Many questions about the Fourth Purpose remain: How should we support and encourage faculty who choose or wish to move in this direction? How can we better engage students who are excited to participate with us in this mission? What are the implications for hiring and promotion within the University? And how can the University, as an institution, better serve a world that clearly needs more of what we have to offer in this regard?

To seek answers to these questions, we established a Fourth Purpose Task Force, composed of 20 faculty from across the University and chaired by Interim Provost Ira Katznelson. The goal was to issue recommendations by the end of the academic year, which turned out to be the very moment when the pandemic struck and transformed our lives and focus. As we have charted our way through this crisis, the Task Force continued its work, and we now have the fruits of their extraordinary efforts. I am including a link to the Fourth Purpose Task Force report and recommendations here.

As you will see, the report provides a lucid and illuminating analysis and review of this distinctive mission, by placing it in the broader context of the academy and by highlighting what we need to consider as we make this formally part of what we do. Given that we are still in the throes of the virus, some of the specific recommendations will have to wait until life becomes normal again. But the report asks that “the Office of the Provost convene an annual series of seminars and workshops across Columbia, in partnership with Columbia World Projects, about the qualities and orientations of Fourth Purpose activity,” and this we can do now. Such an effort, the report says, would advance effective, relevant scholarship and various forms of directed action pedagogy. We most certainly can accelerate this idea by creating an initial series of seminars and other opportunities to consider the Task Force report and its recommendations. I have asked Ira along with Wafaa to coordinate these efforts this spring.

I am deeply grateful to Ira and the members of the Fourth Purpose Task Force for launching this effort so thoughtfully and compellingly.


Lee C. Bollinger