Columbia goes global... like this globe...

Does anyone know what the global centers do? In the larger sense, aside from hosting a program here and an event here, what is their sinister purpose? Yesterday administrators, students and scholars converged on Low Library to explain what it means in a conference entitled “Columbia Goes Global: The Next 50 Years.” Semi-pro Low Rat and Administration Fanboy Mark Hay was on the scene.

When President Lee C. Bollinger first came to Columbia, he made clear his opinion that no serious university could survive in the 21st century without becoming a global university. As far as sweeping statements go, that one made sense to everyone who heard it. Unfortunately, said Vice President for Global Centers Kenneth Prewitt, Prezbo didn’t exactly ever say what that meant. And as Columbia prepares to open global centers in Nairobi, Kenya and Santiago, Chile, over the next year, giving the university a presence in every major region of the globe, Prewitt thinks its quite time to start having a serious conversation about what it means for the university to go global.

The cozy hall behind the Rotunda of Low Library may seem an odd place to start a serious conversation with lasting influences for the fate of a major academic institution. But start there it did. At least the minds assembled, Barnard President Debora Spar, Dean of the School of General Studies Peter Awn, and Dean of Columbia College Michelle Moody-Adams, were up to the challenge. A conference such as this holds the potential to be a preening and primping session, replete with sound bites and photo ops, to show off Columbia’s new toys and puff our image. But the assembled brain trust showed a refreshing (and relatable—finally!) skepticism, coupled with genuine interest and insight into global education.

“I’ve come to hate the word ‘globalization,’” said Spar upon taking the podium. No one knows what it means. Nor is there a model for globalization. Every university will go global by necessity, but in a different way. To Spar, the question is how to shape Columbia’s model of global education—should it merely export Columbia’s system abroad as a beacon for others or can it import as much from foreign educational systems as it exports to them? How global should Columbia students be; should they know a great deal about a small chunk of the world or merely learn a bit about everything? Should professors be drawn into global requirements (teaching abroad—imagine the beach photos) as well? And should Columbia become a truly global university (whatever that means) or an uniquely American institution with a special vantage to the world?

Next to bat was Awn, who echoed Spar’s adoration for the Columbian general liberal arts focus and hoped to celebrate that legacy while moving abroad. Awn noted the tendency in American universities to, when they realize they have overlooked a subject (say, a region of the world or way of thinking), just create more and more classes. Education, he warns, can become comprehensive, but too diffuse for students to make use of that total education and engage with the whole world. He stresses the need for curricular integration and innovation at home to help in the global mission of Columbia.

Last to speak, Moody-Adams excused herself at the top of her remarks, reminding everyone assembled that she is a philosopher and thus “prone to at least one or two abstract generalizations.” Salvaged out of her wider statements and John Dewey references (Columbia pride!), MiMoo expressed her concern that student engagement with global experiences is neither varied, nor widespread. How does one encourage studying abroad in varied contexts, though, when not all students may be ready or able to do so as undergraduates? How to engage with the world while refusing to compromise on principles of academic openness, etc., essential to Columbia’s character? How to make the experience viable for students anywhere they wish to go, even if that place may not accept their lifestyle?

The audience put even more strain on the question mark keys on reporters’ laptops: How would the university handle the financial burdens of global expansion? How can we make sure that students are exposed not just to foreign elites or elite universities while maintaining the quality and reputation of the University? Honest to god, one man even asked how the practice of philately could play into Columbia’s global push.

For those looking for answers, this event sucked. One student turned around in her seat as everyone stood to exit and lamented the lack of detailed information on the global centers themselves. It would seem, though, that Prewitt and company actually don’t know what to say about the centers. Individually, they have uses. But what they will mean in the future, individually and collectively, how they will be used—that’s all up in the air.

Shiny globe via Wikimedia Commons.