The Fireside Chat, a chance to sort of meet and sort of greet President Bollinger, is offered every semester to the entire undergraduate student body. Only about 30 students are (randomly, with control of the number of students representing each school) selected to attend this quasi-intimate two-hour session in the presidential mansion, at 60 Morningside Drive, which stands like an elegant footman in the behemoth shadow of Wien.
Indoors, an eager staff of security guards, caterers, and public relations types milled among high-rolling undergraduates in collared shirts and high-heeled shoes, who snacked on chocolate-covered strawberries, fingerling potatoes, and a rather sickly-tinged hot cider.
CCSC President George Krebs strolled in a few minutes after six, gabbing with Kevin Shollenberger, the Dean of Student Affairs for CC and SEAS. He then swiftly wrapped an arm around Scott Wright, the Vice President for Student and Administrative Services. Natassia Miller, CC’12, admitting she had signed up for the chat just to meet PrezBo, saw the event as an optimal networking opportunity. “Columbia is a great place to connect with as many people as possible,” she explained.
Back on our pre-frosh campus tours, perhaps we had all concocted that same fantasy of buddying up with our University’s president at a Fireside Chat. That, of course, was before we were Columbians. Columbians all, we moved from the eating room to the chatting room, and the three front row seats closest to PrezBo remained unfilled. Most seemed to agree that that level of contact would have been, you know, awkward.
Regardless of the distance from which one sat, PrezBo looked lovely. Remarkably trim for a man of his age (62), he wore dark corduroys and a soft yellow V-neck sweater with the sleeves rakishly cuffed. He spoke in a soft voice guarded from hoarseness by the two Pellegrinos at his side.
On to all that was said. PrezBo began by acknowledging the need to combat “the rumors—not true—that Columbia is taking over the world,” what with the recent success of alums Barack Obama, Eric Holder, and David Paterson. He also patted all us young people on the back for our discovery of a generational identity and an assumption of influence and responsibility in politics and community.
But his focus on current events was not all congratulatory. Of the recession, he earnestly implored that “I would really like to hear—I need to hear—how you really feel.” So he continued: “Were you thinking about a financial career? And then, in the past two to three months, that changed? And now you want to be an artist, maybe a novelist?”
He conceded that the endowment is down but insisted that “we’re doing fine in fundraising,” and have raised more than we had at the same time last year. He also assured the audience that “we go out of business before we stop need-blind admissions.” The first question, of course, came from a plucky GS student, who pointed out that the University was doing good business with just the opposite policy in her college. The next questioner also inquired why Columbia costs so much, estimating that each class session he attends costs him $200.
Prezbo responded in polite, brief niceties, then seized a muddled question about his vision for the University’s future to initiate discussion of Manhattanville on his own terms. Lamenting that “Columbia is so out of space, it’s ridiculous,” he recalled the school’s 19th century space crunch on its Midtown campus, then proceeded to list all the new institutes—primarily devoted to the life sciences and the study of globalization—that will find a home on the Manhattanville campus.
He also disclosed plenty about the University’s plans for global expansion. First, he explained that Columbia isn’t opting to follow other schools in establishing satellite locations in the regions (the Emirates and Singapore) that will pay a university to do so. Instead, Columbia will build “offices around the world that facilitate research in those regions on real issues.” Such offices are planned in Amman, Delhi, Sao Paolo, Dar-es-Salaam, and beyond, and will allow students for whom a semester abroad is “too great a commitment” to study in foreign countries for trips as short as a week.
Several mumbled questions about online classes, the World Leaders Forum, and the possibility of establishing internships exclusively for students receiving financial aid were basically brushed over. One SEAS senior inquired, vaguely, about PrezBo’s managerial style.
“The idea of being boss is kind of overrated,” he conceded. “Look at what our great alum and trustee Vikram Pandit is dealing with at Citi.” He painted himself as an innocent, having tumbled from a sabbatical in Strasbourg almost without effort into the work of administrating universities. He encouraged a little more opportunism in his audience, though.
“There’s still a lot of food,” he reminded us. “You should all fill your pockets.”