A few times every semester, PrezBo invites students into his home to ask questions and chow down on some top-quality hors d’oeuvres. Bwog Editor and Senior Hair Correspondent James Downie reports.

fireside chat 2009-09-30Eager first-years and grizzled seniors packed into the President’s stately abode (located right behind Wien, presumably to taunt unlucky juniors) on Thursday night, armed with a wide variety of questions to test the master. The questioning began easily enough: whether PrezBo enjoyed the nickname of PrezBo. Fortunately for this author, he does; “I’ve always assumed it’s not hostile,” he said with a grin, “Feel free to use it.”

The next question, though, set the standard for an evening where PrezBo grew more revealing the longer he took to answer. A relative softball – “what is your daily routine?” – turned into meditation on Manhattanville after Bollinger told the audience that much of his time is spent on long-term issues. “For the last forty years,” he explained, “Columbia has been out space,” in contrast to earlier in the century, when the move uptown gave Columbia the space to spend its funds. “Manhattanville was a daring idea: seventeen acres in Harlem, where Columbia’s relationships have not always been good. But I felt like it was the right thing to do.” He added that the university is currently designing the many new buildings in the project.

As for other long-term goals, Bollinger spoke about his global vision for the university. With a new branch of the university opening next year in India, Bollinger spoke of students taking classes in other countries, and bringing together experts from all over the world, all under the Columbia banner. “I think the world is being integrated,” he concluded, “and the university has to be a part of it.”

The night then switched to local issues, on how Columbia can be “a good neighbor” to the surrounding communities. Bollinger, no doubt by now used to answering this question, rattled off numerous gestures by Columbia towards the local communities: taking major steps to make more jobs available, keeping a high number of local in the Columbia School, adding more health and legal clinics, and partnering with the Department of Education for a new high school in Manhattanville (modeled on Bronx Science). He then admitted, though, “still, you never feel like you’ve done enough, and we welcome faculty and student involvement.”

A pair of questions let PrezBo share what he enjoyed most about the students (“how intelligent you are”) and what frustrates him most (“sometimes students feel like this institution doesn’t care about them,” but there’s so much energy going into teaching and running this institution”). But the return to global issues set up Bollinger’s longest answer of the night, after a student asked how global expansion would be reflected in the Core. PrezBo first defended the Core, calling it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “How many of you will go home and pick up Shakespeare for two hours?” he asked, to the crowd’s amusement, “You’ll probably go home and turn on the TV, night after night, and what does that say about the human mind?” Putdowns of our work ethic aside, the audience took his point.

“But,” he continued, “we are now in a situation where it is not just interesting to learn about China, it is imperative. So it does not make sense for your generation to learn about one world in the core and then be introduced to the rest of it in lectures. The issue is just how to implement it, and I think that’ll be Dean Moody-Adams’ great impact on undergraduate education.” He even said there was a legitimate debate over whether there is “too much Core,” adding that flexibility with majors was a worry. With that, and a few comments from the audience (he agreed that diversifying the career center’s offerings was an important goal), the night ended, and the students returned to wolfing down the rest of their free appetizers.