Early Semester Reflections

January 28, 2020

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,

Ordinarily, as a new semester begins, the mood is expectant, characterized by pleasures of grappling with innovative ideas, new courses, fresh possibilities. As this term opens, all these outlooks are qualified by what has been a season of uncommon sadness, punctuated by sharply-felt losses—not least Tess Majors, who had only just joined our community; Katherine Williams Phillips, the Reuben Mark Professor of Organizational Character at the Business School, a scholar and pioneer practitioner of diversity who died in what should have been mid-life; and Michael Sovern, the former president of Columbia who also had served as dean of the Law School and provost of the University, with each of his appointments signaling a then-pioneering form of diversity. 

The opening of the term also is a reminder of challenges ahead, each of which offers us the chance—I would say the prospect—of collective achievement. But each is not simple.

The months just ahead will see an acceleration of union negotiations. Since bargaining began nearly a year ago, the University’s negotiators have met more than twenty times with the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW (GWC-UAW) and the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers-UAW (CPW-UAW). This process is guided by a Framework Agreement, ratified in November 2018, that points the way toward common ground. Full sets of proposals are on the table, and progress, some significant, has been achieved across a variety of areas. But much remains to be accomplished, and a good many of the outstanding issues are not easy to resolve (updates are available online at GWC-UAW and CPW-UAW). Notwithstanding, I am confident that everyone engaged in this process is keen to achieve a fair and productive contract during the no-strike window in the Framework Agreement that extends to April 6, 2020, and thus not have to confront the kind of events that recently unfolded in Cambridge.

The Columbia College Student Council voted on November 24 to conduct a referendum that will ask students in the College to express a preference regarding whether the University should, in the language of the referendum, divest “from companies that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts towards Palestinians.” This subject is characterized by intensely-held views and passionately-expressed feelings. The decision to conduct a referendum on this question thus challenges the University community in two respects. First is our forceful commitment to the give and take of views, freely exchanged, even when they make many uncomfortable. The campus is a space for open discussion and debate, a location arguably at least as free, often a good deal more so, than any other institutional setting characterized by clashes of ideas. This is a precious virtue. Second is the understanding that all of us at Columbia share a home, thus the compelling value of neighborliness. Like other great universities, we are committed to democratic reason, a process of discussion and debate that requires mutual regard and a self-monitoring of speech as arguments proceed, a disposition and practice oriented to making sure that antagonism is not marked by exclusion, or, even worse, by hate and persecution. 

In the coming days, I will announce the composition of a Task Force that I will chair on what President Bollinger has been calling “The Fourth Purpose” of the university. He heralded the appointment of this inquiry at the start of the academic year as concerned with “how to extend Columbia’s abilities to bring the extraordinary knowledge and capacities of the University in tandem with the wider academic community and actors beyond the campus to more effectively address pressing human problems.” This quest raises a good many questions the task force will consider. Arguably the most important is how such an orientation to thinking and doing—itself a characteristic of much existing scholarship and teaching at the University—can best strengthen such core purposes and extend existing commitments to public service. As the task force conducts its work, it will gain from significant patterns of consultation, some certain to be marked by expressions of skepticism and others by the question, “what’s new?” 

Finally, many of you will know that under the leadership of Alex Halliday, who heads the Earth Institute, a prior task force has considered the role the University should play and the instruments it should use to understand and confront climate transformations. Its deliberations and recommendations will be the basis for key decisions that will happen in the period just ahead. This fundamental challenge is urgent, and thus the opportunity to galvanize the range of relevant capacities at the University is compelling. I feel privileged to be serving in my post as this work unfolds.

With best wishes,

Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History