Looking Back and Looking Forward

President Bollinger and Dean Awn Reflect on the Evolution and Revolution of GS and Global Education

Editor's note:

This article was published in the 2016-2017 issue of The Owl, the alumni magazine of Columbia's School of General Studies.

December 01, 2016

Dean Peter Awn sat down with University President Lee C. Bollinger to discuss the work they have done together cultivating nontraditional education at Columbia and to consider the future of a liberal arts education.

Peter Awn (PA): It’s a great pleasure to have a chance to talk about the University and GS’s place in it with you. Over the last 16 years under your leadership, the University has made enormous strides. I think if we look back 20 years, we would not have thought that this was possible. But GS is very much a part of that, and I was wondering if you could speak a bit about how you see GS in the fabric of the University.

Lee C. Bollinger (LB): Let me begin, Peter, by saying that you have been vital to everything that has happened here. I’ll say why, in a more fulsome way in a moment. I think General Studies is one of those parts of the University that is very distinctive. That is, there is no other university that has anything like General Studies. The qualities of General Studies that make it distinctive are that it is integrated into the life of the University: It’s not an adjunct, it’s not on the side, it’s not on the periphery—it is part of the educational system.

When I teach my class on the First Amendment every fall, there are College students, there are SEAS students, there are GS students, there are Barnard students, there are a whole array of students, and GS students are critical—as equal members, if not more so—of the class. It’s integrated.

The second thing is that it truly lives up  to its stated mission. That is, we all know that we develop our intellectual capacities differently over the course of our lifetimes. [GS] is recognition that, if you’re interested in quality, you really want to have an opportunity for people at different stages of their lives to come into the enterprise of the university. You have made that possible.

The third thing I’d say is that, when you do that, you inevitably get people who have extraordinary life experiences that are very relevant to the educational mission. So, people have gone out, they’ve done interesting things, they’ve established careers, they’ve done service in a variety of ways—[including] of course, the military. That brings into the mix a sense of maturity, of accomplishment, of just interesting people, and all of those things together just make this a vital part of Columbia University.

Now, you!

You have represented this. Advocated for it. Articulated it. Nurtured it. You have been there for this, every step of the way. You have that capacity, Peter, where, your own identity is enmeshed in the entire institution of General Studies. There is a famous line that I love from Montaigne: “The closest of friendships, you can’t tell where you start and the other person leaves off or begins.” And that’s been true of you and General Studies.

You’re the only dean I haven’t appointed. Except, I’ve appointed you in my heart every single year. So, you have done this and it’s crucial. And as you know, General Studies has evolved and become better in its own mission.

PA: And that is so much a part of seeing the whole University evolve in this incredibly positive direction.

LB: Right. Yes.

PA: As the bar gets set higher, if you don’t meet that bar, then you feel you’re not part of the mix as you should be. So, it’s been really inspirational to see how the school has evolved with the help and support of so many people. And the integration with the College in the classroom is really quite extraordinary.

LB: It is. It really is.

PA: 2017 is our 70th anniversary. We were founded in 1947 in large part because of the first GI Bill. In a wonderful way, we are back to our roots.

LB: Yes, the military—you and I know the history intimately. In World War II, universities were as much in the service of the country in the war effort as any other institution in the society. Indeed, Columbia was directly involved in the training of military personnel as well as other kinds of support. Then comes 20 years later, 25 years later the crisis of Vietnam and the separation of the university-world, and Columbia in particular, from the military.

You and I have lived through the separation and have now lived long enough to see the rejoining of these institutions. That may be too strong a term, but [there is] a sense of collective responsibility—joint responsibility—to the country. That kind of re-integration of the armed services and the university-world has been facilitated, eased, made better by General Studies.

And you have articulated this so powerfully. And now that we have Navy ROTC back on the campus for the first time in 50 years, but, more importantly, the number of veterans who we have welcomed into the University, with all that that means, has been primarily through you and General Studies. That’s absolutely historic. That is one of those things that, on the scale of “What important things happened in your lifetime?,” that’s one of those. And you and General Studies have been leading that.

PA: And your passionate support for the returning of NROTC, in some ways—it was really wonderful to lay the groundwork by trying to change the culture. Many of the undergraduates, many students, had never met anybody in the military. Encountering some in class, you begin to see people developing far more nuanced views of how one can collaborate effectively.

LB: That’s right. And in my own experience— you teach the First Amendment, you teach the Pentagon Papers, you use a hypothetical of Snowden or Private Manning, and the WikiLeaks, and the release of this military data. And to have people from the military in the discussion, it’s perfect. You can’t have a better class than that.

PA: And again equally important, I think, is your extraordinary support for the globalization of the University. And at least from my perspective, to offer undergraduates the opportunity to create multiple identities. Where that was considered quite avant-garde in my generation, I don’t think these young people have a choice if they want to be able to truly engage intellectually in the academic world, the business world, and beyond.

“...People have gone out, they’ve done interesting things, they’ve established careers, they’ve done service in a variety of ways— [including] of course, the military. That brings into the mix a sense of maturity, of accomplishment, of interesting people, and all of those things together just make [GS] a vital part of Columbia University.”

Lee C. Bollinger

LB: Again, you have helped lead that effort, which both you and I speak about similarly, I think, each in our own words. But you with your own background as an expert in Islam and religions and history, but also your general, global personality.

I think we have both seen almost the imperative that  a  university,  especially  a university in New York City, especially Columbia, which has such an international tradition—we must embrace this new world of a much more integrated life, and build a global society. What better way to do that than by taking young people and offering them the opportunities to experience the world and see the issues of a global society? General Studies is great both in that it brings people in from around the world, but also because it naturally helps us feed our students out into the world.

PA: If you could speak about—I know you care deeply about—the Presidential Global Scholarships for undergraduates. I’m proud to say we’ve had a number of GS students selected for the program.

LB: The problem that we face is that in this new interconnected world, how do we provide an educational experience on our campus that is rich and deep and reflective? In a sense, in order to really have a great undergraduate education, you need to spend a lot of time alone with a book or in a lab thinking. To be educated is not easy. It requires a lot of time alone. At the same time, you bring to your education life experiences. If you’ve never been to China, if you’ve never been to India, if you’ve never been to countries in Africa, it’s very difficult for you to have that kind of knowledge that comes when it is coupled with a lived experience. So, we absolutely have to have students out in the world in order to make their education come alive. But how do you fit it in to 4 years or 5 years? That’s not easy either.

The Global Scholars is an effort to get our first-year students out into the world so that then they will come back and want to do more, talk to other students, be in class and raise issues that they wouldn’t otherwise have raised. So this is the beginning, I think, of what hopefully will be an educational experience a decade from now in which almost every student will be educated while having the lived experiences of being around the world.

PA: Which is really extraordinary. For GS, especially, we have had enormous success from an academic perspective with our Dual BA programs, the principal one with Sciences Po in France, from which we have a Rhodes Scholar this year…

LB: Is that right?

PA: Oh, yes, he’s the only Rhodes Scholar from Columbia this year!

LB: Fantastic!

PA: But again, what you’ve allowed us to do—as you did with the Global Centers—is not pick one model in which you invest everything that you’ve got, but to say, “This is a whole new process. Let’s try different, creative experiments. And then, hopefully, have the wisdom to then evaluate them in a way that the good ones stay and the less effective ones can move on.”

LB: That’s expressed perfectly. Yes, we know that the world became much more  “international”—that’s  the  word  we use—in the Post World War II era. We developed international, regional institutes. We had many more students coming from abroad. Study abroad programs were developed where you would go during your junior year, we have experts on almost every part of the world—all that’s great. But this is a world [that is] more integrated, and so many more people travel all the time. So, it’s less exotic, but it’s more important substantively.

How the world resolves issues like climate change, or movements of people, or economic regulation, or environmental issues, or the internet, and my field, and norms about freedom of expression and forms of government … How we do all of this really requires us to have a very different— not abandoning what we have—but very different still—sense of how you understand the world than what we had before.

PA: Absolutely. You’ve raised something that I think is really very interesting. When I grew up, at least in the world I was functioning in educationally, people thought they knew what you had to learn.

LB: Yes, right!

PA: … and that it was easily definable.

LB: Right!

PA: Now these undergraduates, the vast challenges they face in technology, in learning language, engaging internationally: How do you see that challenge for undergraduate education moving forward? How do we help people pick and choose what they study— you can’t do everything!

LB: Yes, that is the dilemma. It does seem, doesn’t it, that the amount that you should know has increased exponentially in the space of a decade? So, you really should know about all of the religions, you should know about every civilization and their cultures, you should know about the geo- political problems that are faced, you should understand exchange rates and central banking, and yet, how can you from ages 18 to 24, or in the case of GS with average ages of 27 to 29, how can you do that? I think about this all the time.

I believe we should prepare our students better than we do by having some kind of very quick way to introduce them to the issues of the time. I think we should have it be the norm that in the course of the academic year you go two or three places as part of your courses and you are able to participate still by video technology, the internet, and so on. I think we need to integrate global issues more into our discussions about any subject that we have. All these things I think we’re working on doing, but it’s quite a process.

PA: As we look to the future, what do you see the challenges that undergraduate education is going to face?

"I would love to invite every alum to come in and sit in on my Lit Hum class with GS students. We just read King Lear, and we had some of the most compelling conversations and arguments and debates that I’ve had in a year."

Peter Awn

LB: I’m not one of those who thinks that the internet will eventually undermine the old financial model of the university in the way that it has the American press. I know the argument. I’ve thought about it a lot, but I’m not persuaded that it will undermine our existence the way that it has the press. On the other hand, I think to remain vital and meaningful as we fulfill our mission, I do think we do have to adjust very significantly. In particular, I think we need to offer our students—as we’ve been talking about— opportunities that they would never get by simply taking a course online.

If you think about it, if you take a recent course by Professor John Huber of the political science department taught utilizing the Global Centers in Amman, Jordan, and Istanbul, and you’re interested in how democracies emerge from authoritarian regimes, and you can have a class in Tunis and Istanbul and have speakers and opportunities to discuss these issues with students from other parts of the region, that’s an experience you cannot get by simply sitting in a classroom and listening to somebody lecture. The more we can do that, I think, the better. The more we’ll feel it’s an exciting time, the more students will feel that it’s worth the tuition. So, that’s one.

I think the other is that there are these vast new areas—neuroscience, the brain, precision medicine, genetics, data science. All of these are extraordinary and quite complicated and are difficult to penetrate, in a way, but they are extremely important for all of us to understand. And then there is—not to be forgotten—sitting with a Shakespeare play, Montaigne essay, or Virginia Woolf novel in an environment that thinks about it, that values that as the most meaningful thing to do. This is an experience that we must preserve.

PA: We live in an educational environment where the liberal arts is, at least in the press, taking a beating to some degree. And you see this move towards instrumentalizing education: “What kind of job is it training you for?”

GS is immensely proud to be one of the two embedded liberal arts colleges at Columbia. That’s what we do. It’s what our mission represents. How do you respond to these critiques?

LB: I have two principal thoughts, Peter. One is, in all honesty I can’t imagine a good life without all that we think of as a liberal arts education. I mean, we don’t have to reveal what you read last week, what I read last week—but, we all know a tome that has stuck with us for years and years and rewards us every time we go back to it, or a novel, or a painting, or an understanding of ideas and how they evolved over the course of centuries. What gives life meaning? Why do we fall in love? Why do we have friendships? Why do we … ? I mean, these are the bulk of what life is about. So, I don’t understand the so-called crisis, because I feel like it’s such an essential part of living that I don’t think there’s any threat to it.

The second is that it is true that thinking about how to start a business, how to solve a problem, how to build a new technology, how to make a new drug: these are part—no question—of the discourse. How do we measure what we’re doing? How to get a return on investment? How do we have a strategic plan? This is the language of our time.

What I say is that even if you’re in that kind of mind-set, you will never solve anything— certainly not on the global stage—unless you have a rich understanding of the history, the culture, the religion, the art. And so, even in the instrumentalist mentality and outlook, I think the so-called liberal arts or humanities is utterly essential. So, I don’t see the crisis.

PA: What you’re saying, I think is … I would love to invite every alum to come in and sit in on my Lit Hum class with GS students. We just read King Lear, and we had some of the most compelling conversations and arguments and debates that I’ve had in a year. And now, we’re reading Don Quixote, and you get that same inquiry to, “What does it mean?” to “What is our place in society?”

And these people, you know, they’re veterans, they’re people from all sorts of backgrounds going off to high-tech, to science, to research, to business, but in no way do they find this contradictory—quite the opposite. And so, I think that’s what we have to do: invite folks to come sit in on a Columbia class!

LB: We’ll sharpen the serpent’s tooth!

PA: Yes, that’s right!                                                

This interview has been condensed and edited.