Centers & Institutes at Columbia

Columbia establishes centers, laboratories, and institutes to facilitate research and educational initiatives that cross school, departmental, and disciplinary boundaries. They are essential to the University’s mission of advancing knowledge and learning at the highest level. Centers and institutes provide opportunities to explore interdisciplinary collaborations that transcend school and department lines, and often benefit from partnerships with external organizations. The work of centers and institutes enhances Columbia strengths and expands its research horizons by drawing together faculty, scholars, fellows, and students for academic inquiry and training.

Centers (or laboratories) are typically organized to conduct research, usually on a highly specific theme or topic. They may involve faculty from one or more departments, usually from within the same school or faculty of the University. Centers may also be actively involved in instruction, community outreach, or clinical services. A new center requires the approval of the Provost. “Named” centers (i.e., those that are established in the name of a person or organization and are typically based on a gift) must also be approved by the University Trustees.

Institutes are usually organized to conduct research with a broad mission, as well as offer educational programs. Most institutes involve faculty from multiple departments across different schools. An institute may include a number of centers or laboratories within it, and may also be involved in community outreach or clinical services. All institutes are established by the President on the recommendation of the Provost and they must also be approved by the University Senate. An institute director is nominated by the President and appointed by the Trustees. 

Centers and institutes may appoint officers of research but not officers of instruction. Officers of instruction may have appointments in centers and institutes but only in addition to their appointments in academic departments.

There are more than 150 centers and institutes at Columbia University. The full list can be found here.

The Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Programs (OVPAP) oversees the review and approval of new centers and institutes on behalf of the Provost. An initial proposal for the center or institute must be submitted to OVPAP via the online DARCI system. (If you do not know who in your unit has DARCI access, please contact OVPAP at ovpap@columbia.edu for assistance.) Below are the essential elements to include in a proposal:

  1. Brief description and rationale: Provide the unit name, mission, objectives, and expected impact on the University from its activities. Describe how it will transcend school and department lines, and how it could enhance Columbia’s strengths and expand its research horizons.
  2. Leadership: Describe the process by which Director is appointed, duration of appointment, and the individual to whom the Director will report.
  3. Host: Indicate the University unit(s) (school or schools) that will host the unit, as appropriate.
  4. Letter of support: A letter of support from the leaders of the units hosting the unit (e.g., Dean or Executive Vice President) must be included.
  5. Size: Provide the anticipated number of faculty; number of post-doctoral fellows/scientists/scholars or student members (if any); and any staffing needs.
  6. Membership: Give a summary of how faculty, post-docs, and students (as appropriate) can apply and be selected for membership and their duration of appointment.
  7. Space: Describe the space required, and the proposed physical location of the unit.
  8. Goals: Provide a list and brief description of the major goals for scholarship and educational programming, including community outreach and clinical services, as appropriate, during the unit’s first five years.
  9. Budget: Provide a budget for the first five years, clearly indicating funding already acquired versus funding still needed. List all grant resources, philanthropic resources, or associated gifts.

Please keep in mind that proposals for new centers and institutes will be evaluated according to the following principles:

  • The scientific and programmatic potential resulting from the formation of the unit (center or institute) is of greater value than that which could be achieved by faculty working without the structure of a unit.
  • The unit should not duplicate activities already being performed elsewhere at the University.
  • The unit must have a clearly defined strategy for external support (philanthropy and/or sponsored activity).

OVPAP reviews the proposal and may request further information to complete the review. OVPAP then shares the proposal with the Provost for review and approval. As noted above, review and approval by the University Senate and Trustees may also be required in specific instances as follows:

  • “Named” centers (i.e., those that are established in someone’s name based on a gift) must be approved by the University Trustees.
  • All Institute proposals are established by the President on the recommendation of the Provost and they must be approved by the University Senate and Trustees. Institute Directors must be nominated by the President and appointed by the Trustees.

The review and approval process for an “unnamed” center can take anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks. The approval process for a new institute or named center can take 3 to 6 months, given the additional levels of approval required. Note that the new center or institute must submit its by-laws to the Provost's Office within 6 months of approval. A&S has developed guidelines that may be helpful.

A new center or institute is typically approved for an initial period of five years. Each unit is subject to review after its first five years, and every five to seven years thereafter, to ensure that the research, service, and education that it performs are of high quality, compliant with state and federal regulations, aligned with the University’s goals and mission, and fiscally responsible. Such reviews involve preparation of a self-study report, to be submitted to the leader(s) of the school(s) in which the unit resides.

Essential elements to include in the self-study report are:

Overview and executive summary

  • Briefly describe the mission and main research focus of the unit, the date it was launched, leadership, history, and any changes that have occurred to the original scope of the unit.
  • Describe how the unit aligns with the mission of the University, and the rationale for establishing the unit outside of typical departmental/divisional/school structures.  
  • Indicate the current space and equipment utilized by the unit, and any planned changes to these going forward.
  • List the unit’s strengths and achievements, as well as areas for improvement.
  • Please attach the unit's bylaws to the self-study as an appendix.

Unit structure and budget

  • Characterize the organizational structure of the unit, its current leader, the person to whom the leader reports, and its position in the University structure (e.g., based in a single school, spanning two or more schools, etc.).
  • Provide the number and list of faculty members involved in research or administration (include names, titles, departments, and schools, as appropriate).
  • Give the number and level (undergraduate, graduate, professional) of students involved and how.
  • List current staff members and their titles.
  • Describe any advisory committees, external partners, and campus partners.
  • Give a summary of past, current, and anticipated funding support. Indicate whether the unit is self-sustaining; and if not, provide a plan to achieve sustainability.
  • Provide the overall budget for the past five years and a budget for the next five years.

Research accomplishments over the preceding five-year period

  • Provide an overview of the major achievements of the unit over the past five years.
  • List the major grants, awards, and other forms of recognition (local, national, international) received by the unit.

Educational initiatives

  • Summarize the educational programs (degree and non-degree) offered by the unit, and the number of students who have entered and completed these programs.
  • Describe the unit’s direct or indirect contributions to graduate and undergraduate teaching programs of academic departments and mentorship of doctoral students, post-doctoral fellows, and other scholars.

Community outreach and clinical services

  • As appropriate, provide an overview and some highlights of community outreach activities or clinical services offered by the unit.
  • Describe any significant awards or recognition that the unit has received for its outreach or clinical activities.

Five-year goals

  • Briefly describe the major goals for scholarship and educational programming during the unit’s next five years.

Review and Outcome of the Self-Study

        Centers reporting to someone other than the Provost: The center or institute director prepares the self-study and submits it to his/her supervisor (usually a dean). The supervisor evaluates the self-study and the continued value and viability of maintaining the unit; he/she also writes a brief evaluation of the director’s performance.  Finally, the supervisor forwards the self-study, along with a cover letter that briefly describes his or her analysis of the self-study, evaluation of the director’s performance, and recommendation for continuation to the Provost. The Provost decides whether the unit will continue or not, in consultation with other University leaders, including the President and Trustees, as appropriate.

        Centers reporting to the Provost: The center or institute director prepares the self-study and submits it to the Provost for review. The Provost decides whether the unit will continue or not, in consultation with other University leaders, including the President and Trustees, as appropriate.

Termination of the Unit

A center or institute may be voluntarily terminated by the Director and his/her supervisor, or involuntarily terminated by the President if it fails to meet the review criteria. A center or institute may be terminated for reasons such as a prolonged period of inactivity, lack of financial viability, or misconduct.

Questions/Contact

Please direct any questions to ovpap@columbia.edu.

Centers and Institutes are established for the purpose of facilitating research and educational initiatives that cut across school, departmental, and disciplinary boundaries. They support interdisciplinary collaborations to meet specific objectives, often on the cutting edge of research. Given their focus on innovation and pioneering approaches and their problem-based approach to research, Centers and Institutes are often more short-lived than more traditional academic units, such as departments. The process for closure is described below.

When the director of a Center or Institute and the director’s supervisor (dean and/or executive vice president) determine that it is time to “sunset” the unit, they should co-sign a letter to the Provost of the University, addressing the following points:

  • Describe briefly the Center or Institute’s lifespan and major accomplishments (for creating a record of the unit’s activities in a central University repository).
  • Indicate whether the unit oversees educational efforts, such as individual courses, majors and minors in the undergraduate curriculum, certificate or certification programs, or graduate degree programs. If so, a plan for moving these programs to another unit at the University or for discontinuing the programs entirely should be provided. If there are students currently enrolled in a program to be discontinued, describe how the needs of these students will be met.
  • List any current grant funding or other sources of support that the Center or Institute regularly receives, and the plan for shifting, discontinuing, or returning the funds.  The plan should specify the steps that will be taken to inform any funder(s) of the program’s discontinuation. 
  • State whether research and/or administrative staff members will be terminated as a result of the Center or Institute’s closure.  Be sure to consult the appropriate Dean’s Office and Human Resources personnel regarding letters of non-renewal and layoffs.
  • Describe plans for the space, as well as any major equipment or furnishings that will be made available upon the closure of the Center or Institute. 

Once reviewed by the Provost’s Office, the Provost will contact the relevant parties (University Senate, Trustees, etc.) as needed to finalize the closure.

Questions/Contact

Please direct any questions to ovpap@columbia.edu.