Michele Moody-Adams may have only been dean for a scant two years, but she has undoubtedly made her mark in Columbia history. Bwog’s Peter Sterne takes us through the short time she spent as Dean of Columbia College.
When Michele Moody-Adams was first named as Columbia College’s new dean in February 2009, The New York Times wrote an article about “the first female and the first black dean of Columbia College.” They praised Columbia’s selection of Dean Moody-Adams first because of the demographic diversity it would bring to the administration, noting uncomfortably that “the top tier of the [Columbia] administration has remained largely male and monochromatic despite an increasingly diverse student body.” But the Times also recognized the strengths that she brought to Columbia, namely, her background in moral and political philosophy that would allow her to understand the importance and challenges of Columbia College’s Core Curriculum, and her experience working as both an academic and administrator at Cornell.
Dean Moody-Adams certainly seemed committed to the Core. In an interview with Columbia College Today, she spoke of her love for the Core and declared, “I will do everything I can to protect the Core, the best of the Core, and much of what remains and has been handed down through the decades is the best.” And when asked what should be used to judge her success or failure as a dean, she replied, “I think it would have to do with the Core — the health of the Core Curriculum and the extent to which…we’ve managed to preserve the essence of the Core.”
During her short time at Columbia, there have been some small efforts to enhance the Core Curriculum. Chair of Literature Humanities Christia Mercer created an interactive LitHum website that (at least in theory) helps students relate the themes of Lit Hum readings to each other and the modern world. In a similar vein, Professor Mercer, with Dean Moody-Adams’s support, started the Core Scholars program, which gives prizes to students who use Core readings as the basis for projects like songs, woodcuts, and intepretive dances. For Dean Moody-Adams, though, the Core includes more than just LitHum and CC. She believes strongly that the Core must include a basic understanding of science.
Her love for the Core is a reflection of her love for undergraduate education. One of her pet peeves, she told Columbia College Today, is “people who think that you can’t be an accomplished scholar or researcher and also a good teacher.” She has sought not only to improve undergraduate teaching indirectly, but also to actually teach. She delivered the mandatory CC lecture in February, gave the first in a new series of Honorary Lectures in April, and even held a movie night for undergraduates that turned into a Core-style guided intellectual discussion about the movie.
Moody-Adams was not only the Dean of Columbia College; she was also Columbia’s Vice President of Undergraduate Education, which means her responsibilities also included the education at SEAS and GS in addition to the College. This was the first time that a Dean of the College had ever held such a position. Even before she came to Columbia, she was insistent that the university should never forget the importance of undergraduate education. “I think Columbia offers a great opportunity, great professional and graduate programs but also an honored and highly valued undergraduate program. Will we have preserved that in the way we should for generations to come?” She offered a gentle criticism of Cornell (which also seems to apply to Columbia) for having other institutional priorities: “maybe people were trying to do too many things — at my institution maybe there was too much building — and maybe you need to rededicate yourself to the core of the mission of higher education.”
This belief in the importance of undergraduate education is complemented by her insistence that all students—especially undergrads—should be able to receive an education regardless of their ability to pay. She’s a strong proponent of need-based financial aid and told Spec, “That’s very much one of my commitments, is the idea of the accessibility of higher education for people who are ready to take advantage of it.” While need-based financial aid has not been increased since Dean Moody-Adams came to Columbia, the College and SEAS have taken steps toward greater accessibility. Last year, Columbia switched to the Common App because, according to Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jessica Marinaccio, “the Common Application will make applying to Columbia more accessible to students from every background.”
Less publicized than her love for the Core and accessibility, but perhaps more important to the administration, was her skill at administrating. As Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education at Cornell, she worked to increase undergraduate research opportunities and standardize advising and teaching training programs across all undergraduate schools. Though she centralized some undergraduate services common to all the undergraduate schools, it does not appear that she ever tried to centralize fundraising for the various undergraduate schools. She also worked with Cornell’s ROTC program.
Prior to Moodygate, ROTC was the lens through which most Columbia students saw the former dean. She generated controversy when she argued in favor of ROTC’s return to Columbia during a public hearing on ROTC in the Spring. Although she insisted that she was speaking her personal opinion on the issue, rather than stating the administration’s official position on ROTC, many students—especially those opposed to ROTC’s return—felt that it unfairly skewed the debate for such a powerful administrator to openly take sides on the issue.
Both the ROTC and Moodygate controversies show that Dean Moody-Adams was not afraid to speak up when she believed it necessary. And you can’t say she never warned us. During that interview with Columbia College Today, she admitted, “I’m easy to get along with, but I have strong opinions. I know when to voice them and I know when to hold back, at least I think I do,” and “I’m a very outspoken person, and I will keep the values and importance of the College out front.”