Early Reflections

September 26, 2019

Dear Colleagues,

Some four weeks into my stint as interim provost, I should like to share my sense of priorities for the academic season and report on some current developments.

It is an unexpected honor to serve in my current office. My main responsibility is to maintain the momentum that my distinguished predecessor, John Coatsworth, achieved across the academic life of the institution. I inherit from him a wonderful staff, including uncommonly talented vice provosts, and a rich array of tools to work with deans, faculty, and students to improve Columbia. I hope to pass on to my successor an office with similar capacity and commitment to a wide range of goals. These include fostering an inclusive community, scholarship, and pedagogy, and enhancing our ability to deepen connections at the borders of schools and disciplines.

You will have seen President Bollinger’s message concerning the role the University might play to appraise and act on urgent climate issues and to associate significant scholarship with effective action on pressing issues. This connection has been of intense interest to me ever since my first NSF research grant in the early 1970s during the last phase of Columbia’s Bureau of Applied Social Research, whose existence spanned 1933 to 1976, and, more recently, with my role as a deputy director of Columbia World Projects. Thus I am pleased to have been asked to lead a task force on what has been called the university’s ‘fourth purpose’ (with scholarship, teaching, and public service identified as the familiar three). We will be proceeding in a manner that strengthens ties among these purposes.

Each fall, the provost convenes strategic budget discussions with our deans and schools. These look beyond immediate needs to a longer temporal arc of ambition for excellence. But they are also pragmatic, and always have to be attuned to how fiscal prospects are shaped by factors that lie beyond the control of our institution. I very much look forward to these conversations.

I am a graduate of Columbia College. As so many alumni say without hyperbole, our experiences beginning with the Core—presently celebrating a century of instruction—and moving through the major profoundly alter horizons, both intellectual and aspirational. During the academic year, I plan to work closely with various leaders on campus to enrich Columbia’s singularly excellent education in the College, General Studies, and SEAS. As important work continues to revise and advance the Core, I hope we can attend as well to the sometimes wrenching transition from the initial phase of the curriculum to the moment characterized by more intensive specialization, and to finding means to enhance the concluding two years of the collegiate experience. Some years back when Austin Quigley was dean of the College and I was acting vice president for Arts and Sciences, we initiated what we called ‘the majors project’ with just such purposes. Much, of course, has happened since, including a wide array of advancements.

This is an academic year in which we will consider how best to create an advisory process about ethics and values when university contracts with other organizations raise vexing questions; a time of union negotiation with our graduate students and postdocs; and a period of active planning for gains in campus space. The Provost’s Office also will initiate a new Faculty Mentoring Award, with nominations due in January, that will recognize senior faculty who have demonstrated an exceptional commitment to mentoring tenure-track and mid-career colleagues. 

Every day brings discoveries about the range of vibrant activity at Columbia. Let me conclude by naming two that crossed my desk just this past week:

In August 1619, “twenty and odd” African captives, North America’s first race-based slaves, were disembarked in Port Comfort, Virginia. The significance of this docking by the White Lion over the course of the subsequent four centuries will be marked on campus by an array of programs to understand and appraise the consequences.

Starting in October through December, the Libraries will offer an inside-outside exhibit that will include a banner on the Butler Library facade with names of eight female-identifying writers and thinkers chosen by students. The original ‘Butler Banner,’ created by a GS student and mounted thirty years ago, will be on display inside the Library. 

And a closing salute both to the glorious renovation of St. Paul’s Chapel and to the just-opened Haven Plaza adjacent to the Medical Center, where I managed two days ago to find sun and some respite in an afternoon of meetings.

With best wishes,

Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History