PrezBo generously shared his mansion and manservant with some lucky lottery winners at his first Fireside Chat last night from 6 to 7:30 pm. Bwog’s Conor Skelding, ever eager to enter 60 Morningside Drive, stopped by to watch his fellow students waffle between demonizing and deifying their president-for-life.
5:57 to 6:35 pm was spent mingling around a central snack spread of pastrami finger sandwiches, artisinal cheeses, fruits, vegetables, donuts, candies, sparkling water, soda, and apple cider. KevSho made his rounds, greeting and chatting with students. There was an unusually large representation of freshpeople. By a little after 6:30, whatever force moves people in polite social situations, herded the crowd into PrezBo’s sitting room.
Once everybody had settled, PrezBo, dressed sharply in a navy suit and blue tie, entered stage right. He opened candidly: “You can ask me anything and I’ll say if I can answer it or don’t want to.” The game was afoot.
A student sporting a soul patch pitched the first question, about Columbia’s patents on intellectual property. PrezBo replied that such patents bring in $75 to $100 million a year. He’s ” happy they make money,” but modestly admitted his lack of knowledge on patent issues. Someone else followed up with a comment on the move of scientific scholarship from individual to group, from specific to holistic. PrezBo likes this trend, and wants making more buildings to house all these wonderful holistic happenings.
Next a student asked for the President’s thoughts on Occupy Wall Street. PrezBo mentioned that he’d read David Brook’s opinions and mostly agreed with them. Merely attacking easy targets like the rich or Wall Street is an oversimplification, he explained. “Wall Street firms were significantly responsible, but not the only ones [to blame].” He added that part of blame must be shouldered by the American people and regulators for being “swept up in easy money.” Though Prezbo maintains that “demonstrations are by definition oversimplifications,” he diverges from Brooks because he believes the emotions expressed in protests genuinely valuable and worth listening to.
Throughout the course of the night, PrezBo shifted from standing, to sitting on his stool, to leaning on it, to standing again. He had two small bottles of San Pellegrino and a drinking glass, but only sipped at one throughout the night, straight from the bottle.
Following the OWS discussion, a student inquired about PrezBo’s vision for Columbia and how our humble institution compares to other Ivies. He defined his job as “[creating] the conditions under which great scholarship can be done,” and identified “space” and “resources” as the biggest problems historically facing Columbia. “Anybody who has spent time at Columbia knows the significance of the word ‘gym.'” he joked. Manhattanville and NoCo were meant to alleviate those problems, and “universities must grow.” Part of that growth will come from endowments, and PrezBo noted that Columbia is performing exceptionally in terms of annual growth, but its total nest egg still lags far behind the behemoth that is Harvard’s $32 billion.
Next another guest asked what PrezBo had read lately. ‘Bo likes to revisit Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Thoreau, but recently delved into a book about Pakistan by a Washington Post journalist. “I’ve read three by Washington Post reporters lately. I get them free.” Being on the Pulitzer committee also forces him to read a lot.
In response to the question “to what do you attribute your success to over the years?” PrezBo laughed, and said basically that he believes you can improve yourself and become smarter with work. He was sure to add that “every conversation is a chance to learn.”
Then came politics. A student expressed disillusionment with politicians divorced from the “American people.” PrezBo shares those sentiments, and pondered if “maybe the whole system needs to be restructured,” and ventured “maybe we need a whole new Constitution.” Our current conception of free speech only dates from the 20th century Supreme Court rulings which culminated in a wide interpretation of the First Amendment. For more on this issue, see Bollinger’s fabulously titled book.
Next another guest brought up an evil hotel company which buys hotels, cuts staff, and runs at the same capacity. She said that this hotel company courts Ivy League schools, and wanted to know if we invested in it. He said he doesn’t know, but that the endowment office has people who take care of that.
The conversation moved on to the World Leader’s Forum. Bollinger thinks it’s awesome, as did everyone in attendance. Asked how it could be improved, the audience mainly pointed to the excruciating painful experience of using Sundial to register for any event in high demand. In light of PrezBo’s penchant for inviting controversial, occasionally reviled, leaders, to the Forum, he called for a show of hands to see who believed in brining in such figures. Save a lone dissenting hand, the attendees were firmly in favor of the invitations. Seeing a leader in person is different from watching or reading, PrezBo thinks, because it lets you see their mannerisms and how they carry themselves. This idea helped segue into Columbia’s Global Centers and how he wants to let students spend a week or two in Amman, Santiago, or Beijing.
As the clock crept towards 7:30, we reached the inevitable token question on the Core: is it outdated? “The Core, at its core, is brilliant,” he responded, while conceding that, “I also believe it needs to be continually debated.” Then a senior in CC asked if the new special business concentration meant we were “selling out” our liberal arts cred to pre-professionalism. ‘Bo said no. He loves the Core, and wants you to learn everything! “For you to plan your lives and get started on being specialized is a waste of your life.” The Core, and our opportunities for broad study are, he says, “a great privilege, and a luxury.” Besides, you’ll be spending the rest of your life
in a cubicle specializing.
PrezBo finished at 7:41 with the epic words, “Get some food!” He’s ended events with those words before, but this time he meant it. There were take out boxes! Between his wisdom and the gourmet snacks, the President had worked his magic: the same skeptics who spoke snidely of him at 6:30 seemed smitten just an hour later. Weighed down with crudité, we headed out into the night.