Last night, President Lee Bollinger invited members of the various graduate schools to visit his palatial estate for an intimate chat on this, that, and just possibly everything. Bwog’s Conspicuously Young Bureau Chief Mark Hay was in attendance to check in on the heartbeat of the University.

If you’ve made it this far into your college career and never attended an event hosted at PrezBo’s manor, you really must fix that (by whatever means possible). The man has some undeniably swanky digs and knows how to host an event – but the reception before last night’s little chat felt even more lavish than the usual affair. Guests from the varied graduate schools were plied for over half an hour with enough hors d’oeuvres to craft multiple meals, and even a full cupcake bar. PrezBo himself sat down on his stool (with the dulcet tunes of Mr. Softee drifting in from the normal world beyond) with three chilled bottles of chilled Pellegrino at hand. And there was a reason for all this culinary ostentation.

Despite the freewheeling, wide-ranging nature of a fireside chat, PrezBo took every possible opportunity to press home a soothing and hopeful message to the students. PrezBo admitted that “it must feel as if the world has been closed down” to students and commiserated for a moment on their pain and doubt in seeking a future in an uncertain era. But, he stressed, everything’s getting better! Especially for academics, as Bollinger argues, “it’s a great period for new knowledge … it feels, I must say, like an era.”

In the spirit of reflecting upon crash and recovery, PrezBo spun around a question on teaching ethics into an exploration of culpability for the financial collapse, questioning whether or not universities can craft people into moral entities and what responsibility they have to do so. Somehow this turned into an indictment of the New York Times for failing to report fully on risky financial practices and a musing “that the US fall into a kind of collective mania,” which we must guard against by nurturing free speech and individualistic, critical thought.

Inevitably, this led to questions about PrezBo’s decision not to hold his popular class on “Freedom of Speech and Press” next semester. PrezBo admitted that he has a new class planned, one that will explore free speech in an exciting and new global context, possibly delving into the problems of global Internet publications interacting with local laws of press. In particular, PrezBo wishes to explore the quandary of, say, wishing to call Gordon Brown a pig fucker (Bwog’s words, not his), but considering the possibility of prosecution in Britain deciding “maybe I just won’t say that because I’d like to travel to Britain in the future.” Although PrezBo could offer no more details on the new class, he did offer a few thoughts on how to address the problems of free speech and critical thought, moving forward into a new era of hope and academic prosperity. “I find myself arguing more and more,” he admitted,” for some sort of American world service” to act as a well-funded and balancing global NPR to assuage the troubles of global free speech.

Students, though, questioned this optimism, questioning the national trend away from tenure-track professors and towards adjunct and graduate staff. PrezBo maintained that the increase in adjuncts is a necessary and beneficial step in the global era to understanding diverse academic viewpoints, although he admits that at a certain point a lack of tenured professors will damage the academic environment, but he said, “I don’t have the sense that there’s a lot of complaint about this.” This, though, generated a bit of heat and fury from a graduate student as to the “symbolic violence” of current employment conditions for student teachers and a call for increased negotiation in the contracts of young academic instructors, although PrezBo artfully navigated away from this topic.

Rather than dwell on perpetual debates (Manhattanville was of course mentioned, but given the usual treatment), PrezBo latched onto questions about the World Leaders Forum to re-stress his belief in a new age of academia, which he aims to empower by bringing diverse voices to the campus. In this case, he took the time to articulate his growing belief “in the power of little experiences,” events like Sarkozy’s speech that can open up powerful new realms of thought based on chance exposure, and stressed that he seeks to further expand this program and integrate it into Columbian life.

Perhaps the chat was a little vague, and at points, such as when pressed on aiding international students in securing loans, PrezBo was forced to admit that full recovery for the university is a ways away. His hope, though, for the future of academia and students alike, was genuine. And in the form of mini-cupcakes, it was most delicious as well.

Photo via wikimedia