Features Editor Mark Hay investigates how Columbia quietly influences world politics in the latest issue of The Blue & White.
Standing at the podium in the Low Library Rotunda at the 2009 World Leaders Forum, then-Prime Minister of Nepal Madhav Kumar Nepal began his address with a declaration of thanks to SIPA Adjunct Professor Jenik Radon. Most seated in the audience that day paid no attention to Nepal’s acknowledgments, but his expression of gratitude should have come as a bit of a surprise—by the standards of celebrity, the leader of an entire nation had thanked an associate professor, a near-nobody.
It turns out Radon is far from a nobody in international circles. In fact, he helped craft the original Nepali Constitution in 1990, earning him the prime minister’s thanks that day in Low Library. He helped negotiate the construction of one of the world’s most important petrochemical pipelines, and he practically wrote Estonian corporate law. With such grand accomplishments, why, then, is Radon not more popularly known? Why is he not a Joseph Stiglitz or Brian Green?
This lack of professorial fanfare is par for the course at Columbia, at least where internation achievements are concerned. The faculty directories of SIPA and the Law School and even the undergraduate schools are filled with D-list professors who have had A-list impacts on the world, so much so that a large portion of the world’s people today are living directly or indirectly under some form of Columbian authority because of professors like Radon and their students.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Columbia could influence the world in such a way—as a worldclass institution, the University is well-equipped to produce movers and shakers—but it does so quietly. That may explain why most people will name Harvard and Yale when asked to name the universities with the most political influence. After all, Harvard and Yale dominate the Supreme Court, have played a part in educating every single major party presidential candidate since Reagan, and contribute a sizable portion of Congress’ membership—Harvard, for example, will send more alumni to the floors of Congress this year than Massachusetts will send congressmen.
This is not to say Columbia grads have no political influence domestically. We won’t soon forget that night in 2008 when President Obama won in a landslide, of course, sending the campus reeling from that strange beast known as school spirit. We can also lay claim to Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet, US Attorney General Eric Holder, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. “Not a shabby record,” says SIPA Vice Dean for Academic Affairs Robert Lieberman.
But to focus on domestic politics is to underestimate the true scope of Columbia’s influence—since the mid-20th century, the legacy of global governance at Columbia has been richer and more expansive than those of Harvard, Yale, and the rest of the Ivy League. As detailed in David C. Engerman’s Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts, Columbia’s location in a global city like New York and its exceptionally strong Russian studies program made it an epicenter for training a generation of intellectual and political innovators. Many of the massive federal funds funneled towards Columbia went toward influencing pedagogy and impacting policy in the world, such that over the years, as Engerman notes, Columbia wound up besting Harvard in metrics like the number of scholars produced and government positions held by alumni to become one of the primary forces for democracy in national academia and in the larger world.
With that top spot came plenty of responsibility, as Columbia had a hand in many of the major democratic experiments of the post-World War II era The now-defunct Republic of China, early Taiwan, portions of anti-Soviet Africa, pre-Soviet/Taliban Afghanistan, pre-Saddam Iraq—all of these nations hosted Columbia faculty and alumni in the highest levels of government, many of whom worked on constitutions and other policies that would far outlast their personal political power. Similarly, Columbia had ties to Soviet glasnost and perestroika through alumni in Mikhail Gorbachev’s administration, and the College, Business School, and Law School can be proud to have produced Li Lu, leader of the Tienanmen Square protests.
And those aren’t even the biggest impacts Columbia can claim to have had on the world. Different academic niches within the university have wrought their own changes on global politics, reflecting a singular institutional culture that has dominated Columbia for several decade. These changes all point toward a drive to export Western academic formulations of development and democratization, with its most profound influence felt on the structures that rise above presidencies and prime ministers—the creation of documents and the institutionalization of ideals that have ordered the modern world.
Here, the shining example is B. R. Ambedkar, Columbia alum and architect of the constitution of India, the document that has governed the operations and ideals of the world’s largest democracy for more than 60 years. Ambedkar’s constitution pays homage to its American counterpart with a strikingly federal structure and, at several points, nods to socialist forms of economic theory as well as debates over isolationism that were both raging in institutions like Columbia around the time Ambedkar was a student.
Or consider our dear economist and Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who, before his leadership in sustainable development and the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, was known as “Doctor Shock” for advocating his “shock therapy” macroeconomic policies in post-communist nations worldwide. His strategies—though steeped in the Cold War preoccupation with exporting Western economic growth models to promote democracy— instantaneously liberalized markets in countries like Bolivia, Poland, and Russia, for better or for worse.
And this is to say nothing of Columbian sociologists like Seymour Lipset, whose theory that economic growth and improvements in standards of living promote stable democracy, have changed the ways policymakers develop and implement economic initiatives, foreign policies, and development plans.
But these are just three people—the total scope of Columbia’s global governance is unfathomable. Every professor involved in SIPA, the Law School, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and Columbia College contacted for this piece indicated that Columbia has had even more of a hand in world politics than meets the eye. Many were able to list this scholar or that who impacted this constitution or that theory or gave birth to this field or that norm. But no one was able to provide a comprehensive list, or even an abbreviated list within his or her field. In part, this is indicative of Columbia’s lack of pomp and revelry concerning its success in determining the current shape of the globe.
“CU […] doesn’t make much of international connections,” said Associate Professor of International and Public Affairs Maria Victoria Murillo. Based on her experience as a Ph.D. student at Harvard and a former member of Yale’s faculty, Murillo believes that “the development offices and administration at Harvard and Yale are always making the connection. Everyone knows about [our alumni and their impacts] and it reinforces networks with funding that is specific and linking students and former alumni. I don’t see that here… even though SIPA at least should have tons of connections with policymakers.”
According to Robert Jervis, the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Affairs, Columbians pepper influential mid-level posts in governments the world over, but “CU has never built up the apparatus needed to track its graduates—that’s one reason our fund raising has lagged.” Not that there haven’t been attempts to build such an apparatus, though. Huber recalls that former SIPA Dean Lisa Anderson “once tried to compile info about” Columbia’s global influence, but never managed to complete a full document before leaving the university to accept a position at the American University of Cairo.
It is admittedly difficult to calculate the global impact of an Ambedkar, or even a Radon. But it may be crucial to begin improving that tracking capacity if Columbia wishes to retain its seat at the head of the class when it comes to international influence. Harvard, for any shortcomings it may have on the global scale, still manages to pull in millions in alumni donations every year precisely because of such successful alumni networking.
Even conservatively estimating, the political, economic, and social work of Columbians holds sway over at least one-fourth of the world’s population today. Not a shabby record at all. Whether we ought to be proud of that legacy remains a separate question. Certainly the recent disorder of Nepal, or the hardships often brought on by Sachs’s shock therapy ought to give us pause, just as the tenure of so certain presidents and legislators ought to give pause to Harvard and Yale.
But for now, we may proudly say that the sun never sets on the empire of Columbian thought and influence—if only because we have no way of easily locating where the borders of that empire begin and end.