Lecture Hopping: PrezBo takes the pulse

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President Bollinger, evidently aware of recent ferment among the masses, decided to turn his Freedom of Speech class today into an open airing of grievances. An anonymous Bwog correspondent was taking notes.

The whole conversation was not overly serious. No students were really accusatory, and none of the answers were really defensive. He actually didn’t give answers to most of the complaints, but just kept calling on students and hearing new ones–it all seemed like it was more about him getting his finger on the pulse of the student body than it was about addressing our concerns directly. But no one really cared, because we as a class have a pretty good rapport with him–he’s kind of condescending and nit-picky sometimes, and he never lets anyone get away with anything, but he always does it with a knowing smile, and the class is always lighthearted. He has an acute sense of self-awareness and uses it well.

How the class starts:

Bollinger: (Calls out names as usual.) OK. Any Questions? (No one raises hand.) Anything about the University? (No hands.) How many of you like the University? (About 75% of hands go up.) What can we do to improve it?

A bunch of points were raised, some important, some trivial. No one brought up expansion, or the one-sidedness of the liberal faculty, or the recent hate crimes and the state of tolerance on campus. Also, no one said anything that related to Ahmadinejad or Horowitz or anything in that realm. The suggestions they DID make:


– There’s too much bureaucracy.  “It seems like there are too many steps to getting anything done,” said one kid. Events are too hard to plan, said another.  Bollinger re-states the issue, says “Hm,” nods, and points at another student.

– We should have more time off for Thanksgiving so that students from far-off places can go home. Bollinger’s response, with a wry smile: “Well, I’ve let you know that we won’t have class on that Wednesday. I’ve done my bit. (Class laughs.) I’m a good guy.”

– The Jewish high holy days make it almost impossible for Jewish students to be both Jewish and students in September, and there’s a disparity in how sensitive different professors are to that fact. Bollinger: “Well, who would you talk to about that? Why wouldn’t you go to Austin Quigley, or Peter Awn, or Jerry Navirtil? Why wouldn’t student government take on the issue?”

– Advising sucks, the mostly-senior class generally agreed. It seems that if you want to go into consulting and finance, you’re golden–but if you want to go into any other field, you’re on your own. Bollinger: “Advising is always a big problem. But what’s the issue here? If you want to go talk to someone about life after Columbia, is it hard to do? Is it hard to do because the kind of people who do this have too many students and its hard to get an appointment, or is it that they don’t know very much about the fields?”

Students: A bit of both. The pre-law and pre-medical offices, for instance, are combined, which they probably shouldn’t be, and it’s a pretty small office. Our alumni connections are also pretty weak for all careers outside of consulting and finance. One Student makes the point that the best, most real way to fix this is to strengthen alumni-student connections in other fields. Also, the point is raised that it is sometimes even hard to make jobs out of internships because, unlike many other schools, academic credit is not given to Columbia students for internships, and as such, we have to cut down hours at internships.

– New topic: Study abroad is hard in general; bad advising office, tough requirements for transfers, etc. Bollinger’s response: Asks how many of us studied abroad (about half), how many didn’t (about half), and how many wanted to but couldn’t (about 80% of the last half). “One of the things I’m pushing is to create very short, brief opportunities abroad. So you could go visit one of Jeff Sachs’ Millennium Village for a week, for example. In our modern age, you really can fly somewhere, stay for three days, and learn a hell of a lot. How many people would find that kind of opportunity attractive?” (90% of class raises hand.)

-New topic: Bollinger: “The fact that no one has raised coursework–is that because everyone is completely happy with the way that works?” (Starts calling on students). Someone brings up a point about how TAs are inconsistent in quality. Some gigantic douche changes the subject before Bollinger has a chance to respond to say that he is very concerned with the “Lack of court space for pickup basketball,” describing a time when he tried to play pickup basketball and the baseball team was practicing on the court. He brings up what he refers to as “all sorts of non-basketball related activities” overtaking the basketball space. The class laughs and silently hates him. 

Someone counters with a point about how in general, the Athletic Department is becoming more and more of a business, and fails to engender a sense of community. There is some discussion on this in general. At some point, Bollinger says “The sense of community here is very interesting to me. I sense that it is strong, but perhaps that’s not widely felt.”

Soon, the conversation changes to the Core. One student says that he understands and believes in the philosophy behind the Core, and says that the Core is a great thing–when it’s well done. But any given student’s experience with the core is determined almost exclusively by his individual professors, and the quality varies so widely that you can’t count on core classes being a good experience. Bollinger asks how many people agree. About 75% of the class raise their hands.

Bollinger: “Almost everybody I know believes that the Core is one of the great achievements of higher education, especially the curriculum of Lit Hum and CC–to a certain extent. But staffing the Core is a very big problem. It’s a difficulty for the institution, and somehow we haven’t figured out how to do that better. But now I want to know what you think of this thesis: The problem with the core is that it is almost completely western. You will undoubtedly, almost every single one of you in one form or another, be dealing with China, India, and the international scene. That will be a part of your life no matter what you do, and that needs to be reflected in the Core. Most of the time, it is relegated to Major Cultures. But then again, Major Cultures are dealt with in bigger classes, and it’s not treated with the same attention to detail, and it segments the world, and it’s an us-and-them mentality. There are many ways to say this, but I want to know what you think of this critique.”

The class generally agrees and disagrees–on the one hand, our world is more international and that needs to be reflected. On the other hand, we don’t want to lose what’s good about the Core now. The discussion doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere. Finally, after a litany of complaints, he says “OK, I got it.” It’s about 4:55.



  1. Nice  

    This is why PrezBo is awesome. Now, hopefully he'll do something about it.

  2. ...  

    wouldn't what goes on in his class be off the record, Bwog?

    no respect

  3. This

    smacks so much of Catherine the Great's tour of the peasant countryside.

    • poor analogy, idiot  

      unless we presume that all the students in the class were coached to behave as though in a figurative potemkin village (i.e., act like everything at columbia is wonderful), it seems like bollinger got to hear valid, largely unfiltered concerns. whether he chooses to do anything about them is another matter, i realize, but he at least appears to making an effort.

  4. ohforgodsake

    Is this the same guy who was horribly offended by someone quoting Bruce Robbins in his lecture?

    Give it a break. This "anonymous bwog correspondant" had an opinion, but managed to express it politely. And Lee Bollinger chose to start this conversation in a class of his that has a good number of people, probably with a fair number of computers as well. Chances were, somebody was going to take notes on the event, and everybody was going to remember it. This would have gotten out somehow.

    And Bwog is a self-proclaimed "gossip rag." Why should it care what was or was not intended to be off the record? It's just reporting what it hears, and it was lucky enough to hear this.

  5. green

    anonymous...hmm...i won't belabor the pitifully obvious. i hope prezbo is impressed w/ your note taking efforts and generosity.
    sorry. all quips aside, thanks for sharing. study abroad for three days** is a swell idea if it's on prezbo's tab. ughh

  6. chill  

    "Some gigantic douche changes the subject before Bollinger has a chance to respond to say that he is very concerned with the "Lack of court space for pickup basketball," describing a time when he tried to play pickup basketball and the baseball team was practicing on the court. He brings up what he refers to as "all sorts of non-basketball related activities" overtaking the basketball space. The class laughs, and silently hates him."

    This is false. There were other complaints about the Athletics Dept. in general.

  7. the Core

    Well, as regards the Core, it would help if they insisted that the instructors/professors actually be QUALIFIED to each the material at hand. Enough Spanish literature postdocs teaching CC, if you get my drift. If they have to increase section sizes, they by all means should.

    • no fucking way  

      section sizes should DROP.

      CC and lithum really ought to be smaller, like say, 8 people. if you're sitting there on your fucking laptop, not contributing or listening to class discussion, you're not learning. and if you're not learning, why the hell didn't you go to a fucking state school? i never leave a core section feeling as though ive learned as much as i could or got to ask all the questions i wanted. the best two classes ive ever taken had 6 people and 9 people. those were without a doubt the classes i learned the most in.

      • Core sizes

        Personally, I'd much prefer to hear 22 different views and analyses than 8. But I don't think that class size is the determining factor in regards to the quality of a course. I really think that the presence of a qualified, capable professor is far more important.

      • Alum

        I hope you're kidding. Do you have any idea how hard it is to teach the core as it is now? Columbia probably offers about 70 sections of CC, 70 of Lit Hum, 35 of Art Hum and 35 of Music Hum each semester -- that's 200+ sections. Reducing the class size to 8 students would mean almost 600 sections! If you think Columbia can't even get 200 qualified instructors per term, how do you think it will get 600? How will it pay for them? Where will it put 400 additional seminar sections each term? For that matter, where will it put the additional faculty it would have to hire in order to have so many sections? How will it find enough qualified professors to fill these slots?

        Even if such small sections would be an improvement (quite plausible, though not necessarily true), would the improvement be substantial enough to justify all of these costs? Put more starkly, would you be willing to see your tuition go up *A LOT* in order to handle all of these costs? Would Columbia be able to compete for the best undergrads if its tuition were dramatically higher than what its peers charge? And let's not even get into how it would come up with enough financial aid to offset these costs for poorer students.

  8. the president

    It's nice to hear that at least some students have access to the administration. Perhaps Prezbo is not quite as aloof as I thought after all.

  9. to his credit  

    he seems like he really, really wants to know what the student experience is like... i get the feeling that the fireside chats exist in part because he wants to get a sense for what the student experience is really like and what people think of it.

    as far as staffing the core goes, i think it's a pretty easy problem to solve. create a tenure track for full time lecturer staff and hire a bunch of them. being a tenured lecturer would be a pretty sweet gig, so i think it would be pretty easy to attract good people... and granted. sciences change... but come on, the core is pretty static. the people who teach it don't need to be doing research, they just need to prove early on that they know their subject matter well and are damn good at teaching it.

    an interesting point comes up though. which better prepares students for the future: a very heavy and rigourous courseload that leaves little time for extracurricular projects of substance or a cutback on the workload for courses themselves with an increased expectation to participate creative projects.

    it seems like handling a tidal wave is sort of the touchstone of a liberal arts education. but i wonder if that tidal wave could be tuned more towards practical/creative projects which translate into more job opportunities beyond the defaults. (medicine,law,etc)

  10. Oy vey  

    Our alumni connections are also pretty week for all careers outside of consulting and finance.

    Week? Come on, Bwog.

    ...unlike many other schools, academic credits not given...

    Please tell me you see the error in that sentence.

  11. hasty!  

    "Most of the time, it is regulated to Major Cultures."

  12. a few things...  

    1) Study abroad for three days is extremely superficial. Study abroad for four months at least is long enough for you to realize how superficial it really is.

    2) Would reading the Vedas in the core really help CC students deal with India today anyway?

    3) And with regard to the previous commenter--people who want a lighter courseload so they could spend more time on extracurriculars probably should have gone to school elsewhere. This place is at least still a school first and foremost in certain ways, thank god, and not just a mill for creating marketable graduates yet.

    • you missed  

      the point...

      the idea isn't to cut back on academics so that people have more time to fingerpaint and play soccer. the idea is to expand on senior capstones and thesii. even if your goal is graduate school, having completed a project that is significant in nature will help not only with proving yourself, but also in being successful once you're there.

      it seems like the default path around here is finance and consulting. with that in mind, in some ways it sounds like the school is somewhat of a "mill for creating marketable graduates" as it stands today...

      where is the entrepreneurial spirit around here? where are the people that have goals slightly loftier than getting a job for a big company? i haven't seen them around, and perhaps that's because i just haven't been in the right places. perhaps i'm wrong? prove me wrong... please?

      • urrmm

        singular-thesis, plural- theses, not thesii. the i plural is for words that end in -us

      • Um Um Um  

        I agree with this. It seems like even Columbia is just producing graduates who would be content with upper-middleclass lifestyles, but not people who are truly ambitious, willing to take risks, drop out, etc. The idea around here is to get a CU diploma, work one's way into a corporation, and stay well-off. I think CU can do better than just pump out professionals/lawyers/doctors. It's time to change those admissions policies.

      • okay  

        okay, reasonable enough when you restate it that way.

  13. yay  

    So happy that I am in that class. It really made me think that PrezBo actually cares. I feel like he or someone in his staff will make angry phone calls to CCE now for limiting students to i-banking & consulting.

  14. basketball  

    "The class laughs, and silently hates him."

    hahahahah I do now, too

  15. oh brother  

    "The class laughs, and silently hates him."
    Misplaced comma.

    Also, as a student in this class, a lot of the points were misquoted or misconstrued. Also, if reading Mills can help in life, I think that reading the Vedas can help to understand the culture and traditional beliefs of India--which may help especially because so many students here go into finance/business.

  16. green

    #19: they definitely exist, but they might not want to expend their energy arguing on these forums.

  17. capstones

    Incidentally, most PhD programs (especially in the sciences) value meaningful undergraduate research above almost any record of coursework. And shouldn't they, after all? What could be more educationally valuable than actually contributing new knowledge to your chosen field of study?

  18. Well I  

    Who to pick, since we have been chosen? I sound almost like a hypocrite.

    If drop-outs are likely to succeed, then admit them at all cost. And you know this is how many universities do it, especially the Ivies. We admit students brilliant only in one subject, in the hopes that they will someday merit a Wikipedia page.

    What I say is, we should value ambition and intelligence in the student body. After all, those most ambitious and gifted in their arts/fields are the most likely to succeed, and those who succeed will ultimately give CU its reputation in the future - NOT the uppermiddle-class lawyers, doctors, or businessmen. When the people judge a school, they do not judge it by how many doctors/lawyers come out of there. They judge it by how many leaders, revolutionaries, politicians, artists, etc graduate from there. Even less do they judge it by how multiculral the school is. Nobody gives a shit in the real-world.

    Likewise, Columbia's Core should encourage initiative, independent research, etc. For God's sakes, we're in New Fucking York. If not here, then where? We're wasting space.

  19. What about  

    the quality of teaching? Most SEAS professors are awful. A class can only be as interesting as its professor.

    Two and a half years into college and I still don't know why you need a PhD to teach undergrads. The incentives behind this system need to be realigned.

  20. interesting

    that was really interesting to read. thanks, bwog. keep it up.

  21. thoughts

    I'm a alum in law school right now. if anything, it was far easier for me to get into law school than it was to get any kind of job after graduation, let alone some kind of finance/consulting thing. the latter two jobs require quantitative and other preparation (some kind of econ), which students usually take on their own initiative. no aspect of the university pushes them along this path; it is entirely reflective of the incoming student body, its goals, and its values. in fact, when bwog reported on a similar event with dean quigley last year (see http://bwog.net/publicate/index.php?page=post&article_id=2694), students complained that they needed more flexibility to become double majors in order to succeed in interviews and such. quigley suggested that the curriculum has been mostly geared toward getting students into graduate schools, not immediately shoveling them into work.

    second, professionals like doctors and lawyers, as well as bankers and financiers and what have you, are the backbone of any elite university's alumni body. for one, most alumni of ivy league universities neither succeed at initial attempts to become "artists and revolutionaries," nor they often have the throw-caution-to-the-wind mentalities needed to keep going. they are, after all, the very people who worked diligently at admission to an ivy league school - career compliers. even the most violent protesters in 1968 had at one point contemplated admission to graduate and professional schools. if nothing else, these alumni contribute most of the money that allows the university to promote good teaching, innovative research, and interesting opportunities.

    that said, it doesn't hurt to admit the kind of student that's likely to drop out for more interesting pastures. the number of successful people who have dropped out of harvard undergrad - bill gates and mark zuckerberg are just the most isolated examples - is legendary. I think it's quite evident that columbia admits as many interesting people as possible (we all filled out the long application listing our favorite books and magazines and musical performances and whatnot) with the knowledge that, while most may wind up falling back on the stability of an upper middle class profession, some will "merit a wikipedia page". what does make columbia different is that, admitting such interesting people, and subsuming them in the core, it is likely to not only have a large group of professional alumni, but alumni who despite the necessity of their current professions, retain an interestingness, or at least a cultured quality, in their own right.

    finally, to riposte the enlightened prezbo, the core may help people deal with china and india more than he believes. india has a common law legal system and a parliamentary political one - anyone who looks at it closely may be reminded of locke. china is still struggling with residual marxism, and both countries are subject to many of the theories laid down by adam smith. and what does india's tension between religious diversity and a unitary state resemble but the polyglot, heavily religious condition tocqueville faced upon first visiting america? what is china's domination of xinjiang and tibet but a reenactment of the occupational strategies urged by machiavelli's prince? reading the vedas and confucius is only one way to globalize the core; its texts can also be read universally, not as a means to impose value systems and conceptions onto distinct cultures, but to understand that people worldwide do, sometimes, at least, struggle with the same issues.

  22. Alum

    The last sentence of the article ("It's about 4:55") would be a lot more informative if we knew what time the discussion began.

  23. interestingness

    So alumni are going to be interesting precisely because they all read the story of Hektor's fateful demise, listened to Prof. Melnick talk about sustainable development, and had a bunch of other nearly identical experiences in a handful of classes?

    • interestingness

      maybe they'll have quite a bit in common with each other, but they'll be a lot more interesting than the sole-focus, preprofessional student being churned out of so many institutions right now. harvard produces so many alumni successful in their individual fields, but columbia is distinguished by its alumni's ability to address the breadth of human knowledge as well.

  24. the core

    texts really teach themselves. sure they need competent facilitators, but the college has been less than willing to hire full-time, permanent lecturers to teach these courses. also, instead of the faculty shoving these duties to the emeriti and abd/rookie faculty, they should be required to take up some of the courses.

    • Alum

      The College has tried for many years to staff Lit Hum and CC with 1/3 senior faculty, 1/3 junior faculty and 1/3 advanced grad students. There is a shortage of senior faculty in several of the relevant departments (Manhattanville will help free up space on campus to hire more) and so grad students were picking up the slack. Several lecturers have been hired solely to teach core classses; this isn't a bad way to temporarily address the problem but it won't do as a permanent fix.

  25. the press conference

    Come to think of it, I think that Bollinger did this more out of a desire to convey the impression that he's interested in student opinion than out of a genuine interest in student concerns. The conversation sounded rather superficial. It also seems that he didn't actually listen very much, but merely repeated his current opinions and proposals.

  26. FEMA

    This reminds me of the FEMA press conference that occured the other day...

  27. hrmmm  

    Boasts indeed... then 16 sections of students could have hour after hour of Story Time With Richard Bulliet! Granted, I love the guy, but don't expect to learn a damn thing in his core classes.

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