Dean Valentini on Transparency, Moodygate, and Optimism
Written by Bwog Staff
Last week, Bwog sat down with newly-minted Dean Valentini (soon to be Deantini). The Dean has been in touch with Bwog and Spec since his appointment, but in earlier interviews was unable to answer burning questions (he too needed some orientation). What was Dean Moody-Adams so livid about? Given that her resignation letter focused on the the changing role of the dean, how would Valentini address these concerns? What sort of dialogue would begin about those changes? Most importantly, would students be privy to such dialogue?
Many of these questions still could not be answered.
Valentini spoke candidly and enthusiastically about his engagement with the Arts & Sciences multi-college administrative super-structure. He remains optimistic about what he sees as the Dean’s increasing, rather than diminishing, responsibilities. Given the growing angst about what many perceive as a dilution of the College’s integrity and individual identity, some may greet this optimism with skepticism. The push for simultaneous centralization and expansion of the university may put considerable strain on the financial and intellectual health of the College. Worries persist that giving the college deans more university-level administrative responsibilities could preclude them from looking inwards and focusing on their constituencies.
So far, Valentini has given no indication that this will be the case. He’s proved to be an incredibly dynamic presence in the dean’s office, meeting ‘n’ greeting non-stop. He’s reading Bwog! Everyone can recognize this as a positive change from the more behind-the-scenes presence of Michele Moody-Adams, but it is important to bear in mind that he’s only the interim dean. His main job is to allay the fears of all concerned parties—faculty, students, and alumni—and to breath new life into the position that MiMoo left winded. And engaging with students, making videos, and dealing with our immediate demands may well leave the larger administrative machinery to continue to turn unchecked.
The link between these issues is the now infamous McKinsey report, which we also discussed in depth with Executive Vice President of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences Nicholas Dirks (interview forthcoming!). Although it’s proved impossible to get anyone on record confirming this, the report, commissioned to make recommendations on realigning the somewhat balkanized schools under the umbrella of Arts & Sciences, contained a number of recommendations for Columbia College that MMA categorically rejected. Administrators have emphasized over and over that these are merely suggestions, and that no concrete proposals have been made, but Dean Valentini has not communicated with MiMoo and has not heard what she has to say on these recommendations and why she found them so repugnant.
Here are some selected extracts from the interview highlighting major issues. We’ve included the full, hour-long, transcript (transparency!), for those interested in reading it. It has been edited for clarity, and the opening discussion focuses more on Valentini’s questions for us.
On student engagement:
I want you to be engaged, I want to go talk to you, I want to go out and talk to you. We’re not just going to have scripted events, I’m just going to go over to Lerner some day when people know how to recognize me and just start talking to students. ‘How do you feel? ‘Whats going on? What do you think we should do?’
On his involvement with the College:
I’ve been involved enough in the College for a long time and I’ve talked to all of the staff people so that I know what we’ve got going and I think I know better today and certainly much better than Tuesday: What are the challenges? What are the problems? What’s the budget? What’s the staffing? What do we need to look out for? What do we have to do right away? I’m formulating a picture of that. I actually like this part. It’s hard because I don’t have enough time.
On preparing for the deanship by talking to Austin Quigley:
My conversation with him was focused on, ‘Okay, what do you think I can do Austin?’ Austin was Dean for 14 years and extremely successful. He’s a dean who faced crises, like being fired. And I’ve known Austin for a very long time. He was dean when he appointed me to the Committee on Instruction. He appointed me to other things and I’ve had a lot of conversations with him. I trust his judgement. He’s got experience, more experience than anybody. Yeah, I’ve had a lot of conversations with him. Talking to him, I felt more comfortable, not less comfortable.
On his confidence in taking over:
There are a lot of factors involved in this that are probably never going to come out. It’s not that they’re beyond students, they’re beyond me. But I know substantively what the McKinsey report contains, I have the report. I didn’t have it on Monday when I talked to Sammy [Roth, of The Spectator], but I was confident in taking this job before seeing the McKinsey report because I’m confident in my ability to keep ridiculous things from happening. I’ve always been able to do this. I have a good relationship with the President, and the Vice President. I’m not worried about this.
On possible changes to the College:
But is it [the Core] going to change in my lifetime or your lifetime, not a chance. Is there any question about full need financial aid or needs blind admission? Zero. The trustees who are the people who are ultimately responsible for this university are 100% fully and unequivocally and emphatically behind that. That’s not going to change.
Valentini: What do you think are the three most important concerns students have now? Because this is a mess.
Claire: Do you mean things students are concerned about in the context of Dean Moody-Adams’ resignation, or in general?
Valentini: Both, because I have to deal with both of them. I don’t really know anything about what happened this summer. I don’t have any first hand knowledge at all. But the consequences of that are things I have to deal with, but also looking ahead, just being a dean, the dean of the college, what are the kinds of things that students are concerned with more generally? I’m going to talk to students a lot, and I want to have a better picture of what I should be emphasizing.
Claire: I think what’s interesting about right now, especially as someone who listens a lot to what people are saying, and reads a lot of what people are writing, is that not that many people care that much about Dean Moody-Adams’ resignation. For a number of reasons: she wasn’t around for that long, people who still remember Dean Quigley remember him as a much more visible presence, and people who don’t remember Dean Quigley have nothing to compare her to, and so two years (she started when I started) is not a very long time to get to know someone. So there’s that. But what people are worried about is that they just haven’t been told anything, literally nothing, their professors don’t know anything, their advisors don’t know anything, their parents don’t know anything. Dean Moody-Adams’ resignation both exacerbated the problem and is the problem. It’s this weird negative cycle. I understand that there are reasons why students shouldn’t know everything, and Bwog isn’t trying to be Wikileaks, but at the same time, as we mentioned earlier, the immediate concerns of students are things like academic advising, and being able to build a schedule in a sensible way, and not having five exams on the evening of December 23rd and things like that. I think that people, rightly or wrongly, draw a connection between their frustration with those problems and the frustration that Dean Moody-Adams’ voiced in dealing with administrators and not being able to have her voice heard. And also not being able to articulate the issues, and feel like someone cared about them.
Mark: That’s a really fair and trenchant analysis when it comes right down to it. Because the number one thing that this has brought forth more than any concerns about the Core—which is something that people do worry about—but it’s more of an esoteric than an everyday concern, there is a vocal and concerned minority about the Core, but what people do care about and what they have been given a chance to articulate and magnify here is the amount of transparency and communication between the administration and the students of the College. What Claire brought up about this whole issue of exams right before Christmas was actually a big issue that brought this to the fore before, a sense of being left out of the discussion with the bureaucracy or not being taken very seriously, and the lack of transparency in what has happened over the past few weeks has highlighted that sense of a lack of communication and a lack of relationship between students and administration, and a feeling that there is something either malign or festering within the bureaucracy of the university.
Claire: And just one last thing, something that I deal with every day, is that I do think the online presence of the College and the University is really lacking. I think that is partly why people come to Bwog, because we re-post all the emails and the announcements that people skip in their inboxes or miss on SSOL and Courseworks, or forget to look up on the university events page or the weather advising page. There are just a lot of places where things are going up and a lot of them are hard to find or not intuitive.
Mark: The issue of communications is one where you probably could get a very good report from a consultant.
Valentini: I can’t say that I was a regular reader before last week, but then I started reading back, and it’s one of the things I’ve been doing to establish some context to understand more about what Bwog is and perspectives that are expressed and, yeah, I can see there’s a lot of what you referred to as reposting, I mean a lot that’s information. Are there students or a student group that would be particularly interested in this particular, I don’t want to make too much of this online presence because I think it’s a technical thing, I don’t think anyone’s hiding anything, it’s mostly inertia I think at Columbia. Is there some group of students that would be particularly interested in this and could say you ought do this and you ought do that, you’ve got tech friends, web friends, are they organized?
Claire: There are tons of them, mostly in SEAS, but in the college too. They’ve actually come up with a lot of tools. One which is hugely popular is a theoretical course-building calendar which is synced up to the Directory of Classes, and instead of going through the Directory which is actually pretty cumbersome, you just type your searches into their very intuitive search engine and then it builds a calendar for you. You’re limited on SSOL to seven courses or so, so you can build this theoretical calendar and play around with it in a much simpler way than we have through the university, but in a way that I’ve seen at Brown, which has a great registration system that does the exact same thing that these guys have built.
Valentini: Yeah okay, cool. Before any of the things that happened in the last three weeks I had several conversations with Barry Cane, who’s the new registrar, because these problems were an issue to me because in chemistry where I used to be the director of undergraduate studies, we have 3,500 undergraduate enrollments every year. All SEAS students have to take 1 semester, all post bac premeds take 6 courses in chem, all the premeds in the college take 6 and there are a lot of other majors that require chemistry. So we’ve had scheduling problems and I had been talking a lot to Barry, a lot of them are room problems actually. He’s real interested in improvements to this system. I’ll just say as an aside when you brought up things like the exams schedule is like something I’d never even thought about because someone else sets it and I didn’t really think of it as a college issue, a dean of the college issue, but I can understand it is, and I’m glad you brought it up. It’s not a controversial issue, ‘why don’t you tell us what’s happening,’ but it is an important issue.
Claire: Even Dean Dirks was talking about increased international enrollment and the people trying to draw attention to the fact that so many exams were being scheduled very late in the exam period were international students. They were told ‘Welcome to Columbia, you’re international, you’re so great, oh and all your exams are on the 23rd and we’re not going to move them and you’re going to have to cancel all your flights home.’ And people just felt ‘Why didn’t my advisor tell me that the first week of school?’
Valentini: Is this more of a problem for first years?
Mark: No, for everyone.
Valentini: So I don’t know when the exam schedule is posted
Mark: It’s creep back. Basically the same thing you see with strategic bombing is happening with every technological aspect
[Valentini looks a little unsettled]
Claire: Mark spent the summer in Pakistan, just so you know where this is coming from.
Mark: It’s creep back, so it used to be posted at a reasonable time, just like when the syllabus policy was first enacted, it was done in a reasonable way.
Valentini: I made a note about that syllabus issue [from an earlier discussion, we asked that syllabi get posted before registration opens, so that people know what they’re getting into].
Mark: Now you probably don’t know your final exam schedule until it’s too late to get the best pricing on your airfare ticket.
Valentini: So I didn’t ask Barry about this question but it seemed to me when I was an instructor and having to deal with exam schedules changing that there should be no reason that the exam schedule should be the same all the time every year. If you had a class Monday/Wednesday at 9:10 you knew when your final exam was going to be because it was the same time every year.
Mark: It’s theoretically fine its just that the only problem to come up is that certain classes meet in rooms that are not conducive to their exams.
Valentini: So I’m going to talk to Barry about this, he’s really an impressive guy, he and I had a conversation about our mutual dissatisfaction with the lack of responsiveness from the people whose jobs it is to help faculty and students have classes. We’ll get to that but since that one’s not controversial I’ll but that one aside. Is it the transparency and communications thing that’s the biggest issue?
Mark: It’s the communications thing and I think that you’re finding in what you’re talking about as a non-controversial issue you have a similar communications problem: be it web communications, be it communications between Registrar and College, communications is a huge problem across the board.
Claire: And given that the resignation was a itself a huge issue of communication. A lot of my professors told me that they read it on Bwog before their heard it from their superiors and they were very upset about that.
Valentini: Well it happened so quickly and on a weekend…
Mark: But then again this is the sort of thing that you have to have a presence enabled to handle because the flow of information is not going to stop for the Columbia informational infrastructure.
Valentini: And you had gotten the notice that went to alums, that’s how Bwog first posted this? I got a letter, but it was a different kind of email. I didn’t know about that one, I didn’t see it until I saw it on Bwog.
Claire: I do think the idea that Convocation was cancelled for the weather but then first of all Columbia has the resources to put together some sort of cheesy video saying ‘Welcome to Columbia’ obviously that would have taken a little bit more time, but just an email from president Bollinger, from Dean Schollenberger anyone just stepping in and saying, even Roosevelt Montas I’m sure would have been happy to write an email as head of the Core which applies to Columbia college students and saying you know ‘there was an incident that we’re trying to resolve … welcome to Columbia!’ that kind of thing, it just sent out a really bad message. And people resign, things happen, personalities clash, policies don’t add up, but it was just very disappointing, as someone who cares a lot about the students and the college and my professors and everything, just to have nothing.
Valentini: I thought it was pretty astute of you both to recognize that it may not be a simple ‘there’s a problem in the college’ and that’s the whole story, that there can be more to it than that. This happened in what in my previous life was the most busy time of the year, because I’m responsible for for new grad student orientation in part, I’m responsible for the famous placement exam in chemistry and registration for students in chemistry, you know, a lot of things going on, and you know until the president started talking to me about being dean I didn’t, you know, I knew this was happening, but there were too many other things in my life going on for me to pay attention to it.
Claire: Right, I wouldn’t have expected you to, but there were certainly people who could have stepped up, who I’m sure would have been willing.
Valentini: I agree with you. I haven’t had time to say, because my focus has to be on this. I’m trying to do in days what people usually do during months. Deans who nominally start during July but really in September are appointed in January. The president approached me about this a week ago yesterday and I talked to the VP on Thursday, from the dorm room of my youngest son who I was taking to Trinity College on that day, and then I didn’t get an offer until Friday at 1 and it was announced at 5 and it’s been non-stop since then. I am getting a message for students almost certainly tomorrow. I needed to find out a lot of things before I felt comfortable sending out a message. And one of them: what are students concerned with? So how do I have to address this? So I have to talk to quite a few people about that. The other thing, what can I say? Because I don’t really know what transpired, what can I say with certainty that I can stand behind that’s specific and not just platitudes, “We all support the Core and that’s that.” But I can’t send out a communication that explains what happened because I had no role in it. But I appreciate those comments, even about the things that I know we can address, some of them, the web stuff, the web stuff…my experience with chemistry is that you want something like this done you get a whole bunch of students together, etc. We’ll talk about advising problems. Advising was one of my concerns when I became Director of Undergraduate Studies [for Chemistry] because I started talking to Chem majors and they were telling me things about advising that were really pretty concerning to me. I started meeting with the advising deans of who this is a pretty big group the beginning of every academic year, but in the limited domain telling prospective science students here’s how you should talk to them.
Claire: Can you explain a little bit why you decided to take the Dean’s position, given that they weren’t willing to disclose any of the stuff that went on behind the scenes?
Valentini: Yeah, and that’s a really good question. I almost didn’t. I liked what I was doing and what I most liked doing was interacting with students and I got to do a lot of that as director of undergraduate studies, and I’d been working on this for three years, the number of chem majors had gone up, and I was having a great time with students. On the day that President Bollinger first talked to me about this two things happened to me that were much more significant, to me, than my discussion with him. Now they may not seem it, but they really were. In the morning, a Bio-chem major who graduated in May came to see me, she spent the summer here doing research and she was in tears, she said, ‘I feel so bad about leaving, you’ve helped me so much since I’ve been here, I’m really sad.’ And then at the academic resources fair later in the day a new student came up to me and she said ‘I hear a lot of students talking about how all this research experience they had before they came here.’ This was a young African American woman—she said ‘I went to a small high school in Georgia, there were no opportunities, I don’t know about this…can I really be a Chem major?’ and I got to explain to her that all that other research experience was interesting but it wasn’t crucial and that we had lots of other people who had succeeded as chem majors who didn’t have any research experience when they came, and I told her that the only thing that really matters is that, one, you’re interested and, two, you work hard and if you want to start in research you can begin right now. This is what I really like to do. There are parts of being dean that don’t involve that, so I wasn’t really sure. The president really wanted me to do this; without seeming to be self-congratulatory I think I can do a decent job at this. I’ve had a lot of involvement with the college over the whole time I’ve been here, I’ve been on, I think, every college committee at least once, some of them more than once, I’ve been involved with raising money through the college and in recruiting through the college. I was the chair of the committee on science instruction, I’ve been on the committee of instruction three times, I was on the honors and prizes committee for the last three years. And I really liked it. I like the college, I like students, and this is an opportunity to have an impact in that way. And we’re kind of in a mess now. I think we all agree, this is not making an accusation at any one, this is a messy situation, there’s no other way to describe it. This is a challenge, students are concerned, other people are concerned. This is an opportunity to have a really positive impact.
I don’t think you need to be as concerned as you are. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be, I’m not negating any opinion you have, but from what I know, you don’t need to be as concerned. I am the kind of person who’s able to negotiate and navigate in situations like this. I have the confidence of everyone, all the administrators in the University whom I’ve known for a long time and interacted with. And I have an established relationship. I’m not anyone’s buddy, I’m the Dean of the College. The Dean of the College has many jobs but only one responsibility. The responsibility of the Dean of the College is to make the undergraduate experience here as good as it can be for students and the faculty who teach them. Both groups matter, the faculty have to feel good about what they’re doing with you. In order for classes to be effective, faculty have to be supported. That’s my only responsibility, that’s my focus. There are a lot of different ways and jobs that are associated with this focus. I take this very seriously and when I’ve had any differences of opinion with people in the past, it has been in my view, even before I was dean, that students weren’t being considered enough.
Students really matter to me. You can find that by talking to students. I had as director of undergraduate studies. You matter to me. I want to make this work, I want to make things better. I think we have every opportunity to do that. I know it seems a little ominous because of what’s happened. [It seems] like there are changes coming and this kind of natural tendency—change makes people nervous—it’s natural. It makes everyone nervous, but some of the—and I won’t call them changes—there are opportunities coming for the dean to have a much bigger role in Arts and Sciences, in faculty hiring, in faculty recruiting, in faculty evaluations. As dean now I get to sit on the Academic Review Committee, which reviews all the Arts & Sciences departments. Until last week I was the chairman of the Academic Review Committee and I’ve been on it twice, I’ve seen how it works but and setting priorities and having influence over things that previously the dean didn’t have any contact with. This kind of alignment that’s going on gives the dean a lot of opportunities and now having this title of VP for Undergraduate Education, which is much broader than Dean of the College, it’s about undergraduates more generally is really powerful. There are a lot of issues that affect you that don’t have to do specifically with the college. I’ll give you an example. One is incidences of academic dishonesty. Accusations of academic dishonesty have been handled in various ways. In the past I was quite upset that the adjudication of that would be different depending on what school you’re in. Now we have a system and one of the things about being VP for Undergraduate Education is you can make sure this is true, it’s uniform. It doesn’t matter what school you’re in; everyone’s going to be handled equally. Now you’re not likely to be accused of academic dishonesty, but if you were you’d want to be treated fairly. And as VP for Undergraduate Education you get to coordinate things like that you get to make sure things like that happen. But you also get a lot more influence on Arts and Sciences. It’s important to recognize that when you refer to Arts and Sciences—and I’m not lecturing you—the formal name of this is the Faculty of Arts and Sciences: it is a collection of faculty. There is an administrative body for this faculty called the Vice President, but the faculty and the vice president aren’t really the same thing. So when you as students or I as dean think about interacting with the Arts and Sciences there are two parts. One is interacting with the faculty and I think we can do a lot to get more faculty interested in the courses, create more incentives to have faculty teaching in the Core, and this is an important thing and I think there are ways to do that, which is separate from administratively dealing with the Vice President. Now both of these things are important; I think the faculty part–interacting with the faculty–is not complicated at all. I think we just have to engage them. And the alignment of Arts and Sciences and college in some way and I don’t mean sublimation, I mean a conscious examination of how they can work together better not that ones going to take over the other, a conscious examination can lead to more faculty buying in to the college and being involved in your lives. I think that’s a real plus. I’m not a Pollyanna, but I am an optimist, if you weren’t an optimist you wouldn’t take the dean’s job right now, you’d do something else in life, but I think we can make a lot of progress there. And I think even on the administrative front it’s not as threatening as it might seem. What makes it threatening is that someone pulled a fire alarm and said there’s a fire but you don’t know where the fire is and you don’t see anyone rushing to put it out and you’re wondering is it my dorm room, is it my classroom, you’re wondering whats burning. I understand that’s very unsettling but I’m not really worried, I genuinely am not worried, partly I’m confident I can represent the college, I’m confident we can move ahead and I think it’s gonna be okay. I won’t able to able to fill in the communication gap entirely because there are things I don’t officially, you know I may have heard about third-hand but I don’t really know, and my focus has to be on what I do and not what happened this past summer.
Claire: But if you don’t know what exactly, specifically, was on the table…
Valentini: Oh I know what’s on the table. Well there are two different things. So the one thing is, what are all the interactions among administrators or faculty that led to this outcome? I don’t know. I was busy with other things this summer. I have the McKinsey report. Okay. The report, although it is referred to as recommendations, that’s not how the report or any other report is. There are a bunch of options and, basically, [it goes]: if you want to accomplish this, you could possibly do this. There are a lot of hypotheticals. And there are scores of, “You could do this.” But consultants don’t come out and say, “You should do this, you should that.” They say,”‘Here are some options you should consider.” There are things in the McKinsey report that no one would ever go on. They’re not Columbia people they’ll say things that we know just would never work here. They wouldn’t have any support, they wouldn’t have any clientele. When I had an interview with Sammy, I had to say that I haven’t really discussed this because I had not then. Since I had the interview with Sammy I’ve talked to the Vice President and the President and we’ve had a discussion of this, I don’t consider any of it threatening and I’ve already elaborated some of the things, it’s really a bigger involvement of the dean in things. The one thing that will happen is there’s going to be an educational planning and policy committee. What is it? Well, it involves the Dean of the College it invokes the person who’s the chairman of the Committee on the Core, the person who’s the head of the committee on science instruction and a bunch of faculty. It looks a lot like the committee on instruction which has existed in the college for a long time. It’s a bunch of faculty. The faculty aren’t threatening. The faculty who will be on it are people who are interested in the college. So I don’t think there’s anything to fear from the faculty. Do you guys think there’s a tension between the faculty and you? Do you sense it ever? And if you do, say so.
Mark: I think that there’s a certain amount of tension not so much directed toward the faculty but towards the relative merits of autonomy and involvement.
Valentini: Elaborate on this autonomy and involvement thing.
Mark: It comes right down to what we saw, the fear not so much of change as of what it might mean in the longer term or what it might mean in the organizational term for the college to become more wrapped up in these structures.
Valentini: The only thing I would correct is that it’s not a case of being wrapped up. It’s not a wrapping up.
Mark: It is a fear of being wrapped up.
Valentini: I understand that, yeah, okay. But that’s not going to happen. That’s simply not going to happen.
Claire: My sense is that given “the mess,” if nothing was going to happen, if there’s nothing to worry about, I don’t see why–maybe if I was sitting in President Bollinger’s chair I would see things differently–but from a student perspective, it doesn’t make any sense to not lay all the cards on the table and say, “This is what happened, this is why people involved were upset, and this is why you shouldn’t worry about it,” instead of saying, “We’re not going to tell you, and Dean Moody-Adams is not going to tell you, and your professors don’t know.” Just the fact that some of my professors have said to me personally, “I’m really concerned,” makes me feel concerned, way more than the fact that Dean Moody-Adams resigned.
Mark: There’s a good population in that boat.
Valentini: I can understand that. This is the part that I can’t really help with because the President has to explain this to you. I wasn’t part of everything, and I know what the McKinsey report says, I know what the discussions are about where Arts & Sciences and the College are going. The only thing that’s been established is the Educational Committee, everything else is up for discussion. I wouldn’t have become dean if someone said to me, “Okay this is all done, you gotta take it.” Why should I be the fall guy? I’m not quite ready to ruin my reputation with students which I’ve spent a long time developing. I’m not about to ruin that but I’m not in a position to explain all this, it’s really the president who has to talk to you about this. It’s his office, he wrote the letter to alums. And I’m not trying to be evasive, I’m just really realistic. I can’t speak for him. I’m not worried but what I can’t do today is okay, here are all the proposals we’re going to consider, because no additional proposals have been made. There is this McKinsey report and as I said it’s got options galore, stuff that no one would ever do. As vice president Dirks said there are parts in the McKinsey report involving options that are already being put into place but they were being put into place before McKinsey came along which is appointing divisional deans, one for sciences one for humanities and one for social sciences that has no bearing on us. I mean it has a lot of bearing on departments.
Mark: So the big question that comes out of there is once more, not to nag this point–
Valentini: No, you should.
Mark: It comes to what your predecessors concerns were, what Michelle Moody-Adams’ concerns were that led her to leave. We’re aware that there are certain elements that were not clear to anyone but it becomes an important issue for us, at least as people looking in on this, to understand that the incoming dean understands what, specifically, her concerns were, and is considering those.
Valentini: I think that has to be broken down into two parts. One is what were her personal concerns, I don’t know. The other is, what was actually being discussed? That I know about. Am I concerned? No, because I think that there are lots of opportunities for us collectively, and the dean in particular, to have a greater level of influence. There are things that intrinsically belong to the College and will never leave the College, even if there are things in the McKinsey and you have to talk to Dean Moody-Adams about this, my reaction to the McKinsey report is, ‘Gee, there are a lot of curious and stupid things in it and they’re never going to happen!’ So why should I be–I know they’re not going to happen–should I be upset about them? Should I tell you about them? There are probably things in there that if I told another person in this office they’d be really upset because they’d be thinking, ‘What does that mean for me?’ But things are not to happen. The McKinsey report is not going to be released. It’s just not. I don’t own it, but when consulting companies give these things they’re labeled all over ‘This is confidential,’ ‘Not for copying,’ ‘Not for distribution,’ otherwise they wouldn’t be able to be candid about things.
Claire: Right, I understand why these things exist but if–like something you said before was that President Bollinger should be the one to tell us.
Valentini: The part I meant was the resig… departure–I’m going to call it that–departure of the previous dean and what led up to it, and what conversations took place because I wasn’t there.
Claire: My immediate reaction as an undergraduate is that President Bollinger has very little to do with the daily lives of undergraduates and he’s probably the last person I would expect to say, ‘This is what happened, and this is why.’ And for obvious reasons, because he’s the president of an enormous university and he has other priorities. The person I would expect to turn to me, and not to turn to the president, would be the Dean of the College. And I understand that has nothing to do with you personally, I think it has a lot to do with the way that Dean Moody-Adams used her time here, and [is a result of] the relatively little engagement that she had with students. Which is a problem that in itself would seem worth rectifying.
Valentini: It is, and I’ve had conversations with Dean Shollenberger about this and I’m really, literally, trying to do in days what people do in months. And Claire I’m not being evasive and I’m not making an excuse, I have to ask for a little patience from students because I have to talk to alums, I have to talk to trustees. But in terms of why the president is the person who needs to talk about the departure of the dean is that the dean is appointed by the trustees, but the president is the one who acts on behalf of the trustees. So while the president doesn’t have a lot to do with day-to-day activities and may not know a lot about the details, he is the person responsible for hiring and he is the person who interacted with Dean Moody-Adams over this.
And again I hear things, you hear things, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to repeat things I’ve heard third or fourth hand–I don’t know if they’re true, I don’t know what validity they have, and frankly I can’t look at that. Am I concerned that this has happened? Absolutely, but my primary concern is probably different than yours. And that is: I’m not concerned that bad things, bad things from your perspective, were going to happen or are going to happen, I’m concerned because this event has disrupted our whole community. I’ve talked to lots of alums. I’ve talked to trustees, I’ve talked to faculty. Mostly since Friday at 5 o’clock, I’ve been talking to people, which is why I can’t get a lot of things done. But that is getting something done. That’s why I haven’t done other things. It’s confusing to everyone because of the way it happened and because of the lack… As I said, it was as if a fire alarm was pulled, but we don’t see the fire, we don’t smell the smoke. We’re wondering, ‘There must have been a fire,’ or ‘there must be a fire, why isn’t something being done about it?’ and I know you’ll look to the Dean of the College. I understand that, and I will do what I can.
I’m happy to have a continuing dialogue. I want to talk to students. Students matter to me. Having the title Dean is irrelevant to me. I don’t care about titles. This is an opportunity to do what I used to do, but now instead of with 150, or 120 students–which are about how many chem majors we have–or 200 students in a class I teach, this is now with 4000 students. That’s pretty cool. I like that part. And I will be accessible to you but you have to wait and see. I’m not saying you’re critical, but that I’m confident that in a month you’ll be happy with this. But there’s nothing I’m going to say now … [Bwog raises their eyebrows] You’re skeptical. That’s okay, we can talk more. We can talk on October 8th and if you’re not happy we can see what more needs to be done. Now are you going to get an explanation for what happened during the summer by October 8th? No. Not by November 8 probably either. But maybe all 4000 students can go talk to the president and say we want you to explain what happened.
There are a lot of factors involved in this that are probably never going to come out. It’s not that they’re beyond students, they’re beyond me. But I know substantively what the McKinsey report contains, I have the report. I didn’t have it on Monday when I talked to Sammy, but I was confident in taking this job before seeing the McKinsey report because I’m confident in my ability to keep ridiculous things from happening. I’ve always been able to do this. I have a good relationship with the President, and the Vice President. I’m not worried about this. The College–it’s going to sound just boilerplate–the College is really super important, college alums are super important, factors in the college like the Core are–really are. It’s not just that we’re paying lip service to this. The Core is the identity of this undergraduate education. It is what makes Columbia College. And it’s not just the Core as a word, it’s the Core as a structure involving courses like CC and Lit Hum and Global Core. It’s evolved of course. Until 10 years ago there wasn’t any science course, now there’s Frontiers of Science. That’s evolving, that’s in continuing review and its going to be reviewed again. There are issues like enrollment in Music Hum and Art Hum that I’ve heard about from Roosevelt Montas, but these things are sacrosanct. Is the Global Core, exactly as it is now sacrosanct, no, but the idea that we have a Core Curriculum taught in small sections, even if as in Frontiers of Science there is a big lecture and then there are small sections, this isn’t going to change. Will it change in 1000 years? I don’t know. You’re history students! But is it going to change in my lifetime or your lifetime, not a chance. Is there any question about full need financial aid or needs blind admission? Zero. The trustees who are the people who are ultimately responsible for this university are 100% fully and unequivocally and emphatically behind that. That’s not going to change.
If you recognize problems with things like advising or registration we’ll deal with those. That’s kind of on an operational scale. We’ll deal with them. There are a group of trustees who are very interested in career advising in particular and how we might improve that and I’ve talked to several alums and three trustees this week. These things will be addressed, i want to address them, but obviously i wont be able to satisfy all your concerns and I don’t expect you to walk away completely reassured by what I’ve said even if you’d been in my class and known me, Cliff Massey’s probably not completely reassured, he knows me really well, he was in my class. I don’t expect you to be that unreasonable for me, that’s hard for me to deal with. Because usually when you start as dean there’s a honeymoon period. There’s no honeymoon period for me, I gotta step into this and now I gotta deal with a problem that I had nothing to do with creating. I had nothing to do with its resolution. But I have to deal with it, and I’m willing to take that on.
Claire: Are you planning to talk to Dean Quigley? I mean ex-Dean.
Valentini: He’s still Dean Quigley to me. My middle son is in the Marine Corps and they have a saying that there are no ex-marines…I had a one-hour phone conversation with him on Sunday. I had another three-hour conversation with him at his apartment which is right below our apartment on Monday, and I have another conversation with him coming up.
Claire: Just being able to publish things like that are pretty important, just to be able to say…
Valentni: Have you guys talked to Dean Quigley?
Claire: We’re trying to.
Valentini: You might get some reassurance from him, I don’t really know. I hadn’t asked him the question, “If students came to talk to you would they leave reassured?” I don’t know [the answer to that].
Claire: Did he seem pessimistic?
Valentini: I didn’t perceive him to be. I hope you get to talk to him so he can tell you exactly how he feels himself. My conversation with him was focused on, “Okay, what do you think I can do Austin?” Austin was Dean for 14 years and extremely successful. He’s a dean who faced crises, like being fired. And I’ve known Austin for a very long time. He was dean when he appointed me to the Committee on Instruction. He appointed me to other things and I’ve had a lot of conversations with him. I trust his judgement. He’s got experience, more experience than anybody. Yeah, I’ve had a lot of conversations with him. Talking to him, I felt more comfortable, not less comfortable. That I can say. I can’t speak to his state of mind but I can tell you my reaction to speaking with him. And I think he’s pretty confident in me, that’s hearsay also, but you can talk to him about that.
Claire: When are you planning to talk to ex-Dean Moody Adams?
Valentini: It hasn’t been scheduled yet.
Claire: Have you communicated with her directly?
Valentini: No I haven’t. [Pause]. The reason I’m hesitating is that part’s more complicated than it actually appears. Yes I will talk to Dean Moody Adams. [Long pause] I will. But, sorry Claire, I just cant go any further here without causing more complications. Yeah, okay. Yes, I’m going to talk to every former Dean. And that sounds evasive. I’m going to talk to Dean Moody-Adams. Given the way this happened, right now may not be the optimum time to talk to someone who’s been through what must be a traumatic experience. Okay. And I’m personally–I’d like to give the Dean a little space about this. And I guess that’s it. Have you tried to talk with her?
Claire: She was getting so many phone calls…I mean I also think I should give her some space. We obviously tried to contact her in the immediate aftermath [and have since followed up. We still have received no response].
Valentini: My last contact with Dean Moody-Adams was to send her an email saying I was really sorry that her tenure as Dean had ended this way. I enjoyed working with her, we got things done working together, we made a lot of progress, I thought, on this Science Research Fellows initiative I had which when I was just a chemistry professor this was my primary interest at that moment in the College.
Claire: Would you feel comfortable discussing her relationship with students?
Mark: That does raise a lot of points about continuity between yourself as Dean and the projects…
Valentini: Sorry, these are two different things. Mark I didn’t quite understand your comment.
Mark: You can go off of Claire’s first.
Valentini: Comment on my observation of her interaction with students? The only fora in which I saw the dean with students were on committees on which I was serving and had student membership. I was actually not part of any event in which Dean Moody-Adams’ interaction with–one exception. We had Sheldon Kwok, who’s a chemical physics major, he’s in this society for better understanding [SEBS]. Shawn is one of my majors so I know him really well. He was organizing the panel discussion on the two cultures. Professor Kitcher whom i know really well was on it and Dean Moody-Adams was on it and I was on it, and there’s a video of it. That was the only venue in which I’ve actually seen Dean Moody-Adams with a collection of students. On the Committee on Instruction and on the Committee on the Core there are student representatives. There’s not enough substance of interaction with any individual for me to make an evaluation, [so] I can’t really say. I don’t know, I just don’t know. There were no confrontations, everything seemed to be smooth, but a committee meeting is a kind of artificial setting to judge that kind of thing. Mark I didn’t quite understand your comment or question…
Mark: You’ve walked into the middle of a dean’s term who had a lot of balls in the air, as far as projects and initiatives sitting on the table, so what can we expect as far as continuity?
Valentini: There are a lot of projects which are continuing. One of the great things about the College is that we have a whole staff and it’s not like the dean has to juggle all the balls, the dean has to just make sure that people continue to work on things. We are [continuing to work on things]. This was a limited concern–I was particularly concerned becoming dean: that I was the only faculty member really involved behind directing the science research fellows program which has a first year science research seminar, which starts tomorrow. And I’m still gonna do it. I’m doing this seminar because it has to continue. On Saturday there’s a multicultural recruiting open house which Jessica Marinaccio had for the last couple years. [She’s] had me come and talk, not because I was dean but just because I was interested. Well you become dean on Friday, we’re not going to find another faculty member to do this so I’m doing this on Saturday. Things that I was involved in, I either found a way to have someone else take over or I’m doing them myself. Other things that are going on, I’m learning about things, and we’re going to keep things going. This you can certainly be reassured about, I know you’ll be reassured about. There’s a whole bunch of staff who propel, who keeps thing going, because the dean doesn’t personally, the dean sets direction and the dean supervises people. But I pretty much know what the initiatives were.
I’ve been involved enough in the College for a long time and I’ve talked to all of the staff people so that I know what we’ve got going and I think I know better today and certainly much better than Tuesday: What are the challenges? What are the problems? What’s the budget? What’s the staffing? What do we need to look out for? What do we have to do right away? I’m formulating a picture of that. I actually like this part. It’s hard because I don’t have enough time. There’s no initiative that was going on before that isn’t still going on. None of that’s changing. Those initiatives really were developed by a lot of people thinking about them, they’re not really the provenance of any one individual, they were developed by groups of people. And so the departure of the dean doesn’t mean they stop. Some committee stuff stops because I have to appoint committee chairs–I have to appoint my replacement, I was the chair of the Committee on Science instruction, I have to appoint my replacement but the initiatives, they’re continuing. Are there any specific ones that you’re concerned about?
Mark: No, no, just doing due diligence here.
Valentini: I understand. Fundraising’s a big issue but I had already been doing fundraising for the College and now I’ll do a lot more fundraising. It used to be [that] my focus was on fundraising for science because I was a science professor. Well, I’m not a science professor, I’m the dean! So that expands. But a lot of the concerns I had and things I was interested in before are still present here. Science Research Fellows was a specific thing that finds work for science students in their first summer, to do research. If you’re not a science student, having a fellowship in your first summer may not be something that’s really interesting, but some kind of internships are interesting, [as are] other kinds of support for international study or work. My purview expands to cover that.
Look, I’m going to talk to students a lot. This is what I did as Director of Undergraduate Studies, you just talk to students all the time. I always tell my research students the way to have good ideas is to have a lot of ideas. How do you have a lot of ideas? Everyone’s thinking. Your ideas are as important as my ideas, okay? So I want to know your ideas. It’s not just limited to this technical group knows how to make a website, yeah I know that already. But you guys have a perspective that I don’t have, so we’re gonna talk a lot. And there may be new initiatives that no one’s really thought about because they didn’t talk to you about them yet. And you know you guys have as much influence about what happens as any–I don’t mean you two, well you two are pretty influential you write for Bwog and Blue & White–but students have as much influence over what happens and not just in a reactive sense, you know something’s happened and now we’re gonna react to it there will be an editorial on Spec and Bwog. I want you to be engaged, I want to go talk to you, I want to go out and talk to you. We’re not just going to have scripted events, I’m just going to go over to Lerner some day when people know how to recognize me and just start talking to students. ‘How do you feel? ‘Whats going on? What do you think we should do?’ but I’m also interested in what you’re telling me, Kevin Shollenberger tells me things. He thinks these things students will like, so I ask students. Sammy Roth told me he thought there ought be more teas.
Claire: Mark loves the teas.
Valentini: I took Sammy’s suggestion seriously and I asked Kevin, ‘Can we do more teas?’ and he said ‘Yeah, as long as you’re willing to spend the time on it’. I said ‘Yes’. But I need to ask more students. I can’t do 19 different things, but I need to talk to you guys. So I’m talking to student council tomorrow and I’m really eager to hear from people like you who are obviously extremely involved. What are the best venues to talk to students? What are the best ways to solicit ideas? You know, I mean, how do you do this? I don’t think I’m a threatening guy. I’m the dean. The Dean is always a little threatening, I understand that. But I don’t think that personally I’m a very threatening person, and I’m not particularly enamored of my own ideas. The way to make things work is to get lots of people thinking. This is why I’ve been talking to alums and trustees. I’m really supposed to talk to the trustees and the alums, so I’ve been talking to them: ‘I need your help, what are your ideas, what do you think?’ They have a perspective that’s longer than yours.
[An assistant comes in and tells the Dean he has to go]
Valentini: If you want to come talk some more later we’ll set up another time. I am eager to continue talking to you.