Provost John Coatsworth's Annual Newsletter

August 27, 2019

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,

This summer marks the conclusion of my service as University Provost. The past eight years in Low Library have offered me a unique vantage point on Columbia’s remarkable advances, from the opening and growth of the Manhattanville campus to the creation of vital new academic departments and programs.

This transformation and the upward trajectory on which we now find ourselves has been the work of many hands, but none more important than the inspired leadership of President Lee Bollinger.

As you know, President Bollinger has announced the appointment of our colleague Ira Katznelson as Interim Provost starting September 1. I can think of no one more qualified by scholarly distinction and experience in academic administration to serve as the University’s chief academic officer while a search continues to find a permanent replacement. Please join me in thanking Ira for his willingness to assume this role. I know that he will benefit enormously, as I have, from your advice and support. 

To maintain and enhance the academic excellence of our schools, I have relied on the engagement of faculty colleagues and committees across a range of programs and policies within the Office of the Provost. These include the awarding of tenure to outstanding faculty; conducting rigorous reviews of schools and other academic units; facilitating the effective use of space and resources; fostering innovative teaching; and building on our commitment to faculty diversity and inclusion. This newsletter provides some detail on these activities.

Tenure Review
The most important role of the Provost is the oversight of the appointment and promotion of our faculty. The Provost’s University-wide Tenure Review Advisory Committee (TRAC) is central to that endeavor. This past year, TRAC considered 69 candidates and recommended 63 for tenure. In the eight years since TRAC replaced the previous ad hoc tenure review system, 95% of the cases that TRAC has reviewed, and 97% of Faculty of Arts and Sciences candidates, have been approved for tenure. These figures testify not only to the outstanding scholarship and teaching records of the faculty but also to the diligence and care with which schools and departments carry out their own reviews.

Academic Reviews
The Office of the Provost regularly conducts academic reviews of schools and key academic units. These reviews involve a self-study by the school, followed by reports from an external committee of peer leaders and an internal committee of senior Columbia faculty. The School of Law, the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science completed their reviews earlier this year, while the review of the International Students and Scholars Office is wrapping up. 

Classroom Space
One of my priorities as Provost has been fostering the effective use of space and resources, and a key area of focus has been classroom space usage on the Morningside campus, guided by the insights of a set of faculty committee reports. A recent example is the repurposing of the former Chemistry Library space in Chandler Hall. This summer, the doors opened to the new Chandler classroom suite, which includes Registrar-controlled classrooms, two disability services testing spaces, a lactation room and postdoctoral affairs office. The Chandler classrooms and testing space will provide a centrally located, essential resource for science teaching. This initiative is part of a broader effort to optimize classroom scheduling and utilization.

Supporting Teaching and Research
The Office of the Provost continues to expand its grants programs that support teaching, research, and faculty development. This year saw the launch of the Interdisciplinary Teaching Awards, which fund teams of faculty to collaborate on new jointly-taught courses. Faculty across both campuses began projects supported by our teaching and learning grants and by the President’s Global Innovation Fund. The next cohort of senior faculty selected to participate in the Provost Leadership Fellows program will start this fall.

Faculty Diversity
The implementation of President Bollinger’s faculty diversity commitment has expanded beyond faculty recruitment, with resources allocated for faculty retention and dual-career support, along with research awards to faculty who contribute to the diversity goals of the institution. The Office of Faculty Advancement has enhanced its programming and published a number of guides to Best Practices in Faculty Recruitment, Retention, and Mentoring.

In November 2018, Columbia and representatives of the United Auto Workers reached a Framework Agreement containing principles to guide negotiations toward collective bargaining agreements on wages, hours, and other working conditions for Columbia’s student research and teaching assistants and for our diverse postdoc community.  The University has been actively engaged in substantive negotiations with both the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers-UAW and the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW since February, and we are committed to reaching agreements with each as expeditiously as possible. More information on postdoc unionization is available here, and information on student unionization is available here.

Policy Updates
Governance of Centers and Institutes.  Centers and Institutes are essential to the advancement of knowledge at Columbia. To assure rigorous and consistent oversight, the Office of the Provost has revamped the process for their approval and renewal. 

Safe and secure learning environment.  The University is updating its background check policy to ensure that Columbia continues to promote a secure environment. For faculty jobs posted beginning October 1, all prospective full-time officers of instruction will undergo a background check after they receive a conditional offer of employment. A committee under the auspices of the Provost will review any results of concern, and applicants will have the opportunity to mitigate or dispute any findings. 

The Romantic and Sexual Relationship Policy between Faculty and Graduate Students was recently updated; it and other consent policies are available here.

Recording grades.  Canvas is Columbia’s learning management system; each course at Columbia has a Canvas page created specifically for it, which includes a grade book to record grades. Students can view their own grades at any point in the semester, and they welcome this transparency and access. I encourage faculty to use the Canvas grade book to record the grades they assign to their students throughout the semester.

A Word of Thanks
Finally, as I step down as Provost, I want to thank the faculty members who have strengthened the institution through service on search, research, and policy committees within their schools and across campus. Faculty governance is the heart of all great research universities. I am particularly grateful to the colleagues who have served on one of the advisory committees to the Provost, ensuring that faculty guidance shapes our priorities. I am also immensely grateful to the terrific staff of the Provost’s Office, whose dedicated and effective efforts have done so much to improve the work we do for the University.

I wish you all a happy and productive start to the coming academic year.

John H. Coatsworth