As he does from time to time, last night PrezBo opened the doors to his grandiose abode on Morningside Drive to a number of students and administrators for the latest in his Rooseveltian series of fireside chats. A pair of Bwog editors were in attendance, and positioned themselves on a soft couch to listen in on the night’s discourse.
As the thirty-some undergraduates climbed the elegant staircase within the president’s mansion yesterday evening, they were greeted by a large display of finger foods surrounded by a host of hungry students—many of them notable campus characters. After about 20 minutes of schmoozing and snacking on miniature pizzas and breads, the students were shepherded into the main sitting room, which contained neat rows of chairs as well as the promised fireside.
PrezBo entered without fanfare and made his way to the stool waiting for him at the front of the room, pausing briefly before quieting the room in his trademark soft, paternal tones. He introduced the other administrators in the room—among them KevSho and Kenneth Prewitt—and then solicited questions from the crowd, adding as always the caveat that while they could ask him whatever they liked, he “could choose not to answer whatever he liked,” as well, garnering himself a handful of polite laughs.
When the chuckles waned, the first question was asked—likely one PrezBo never would have predicted: does he have plans to retire after his (recently extended) term as Columbia’s president is over? He hinted vaguely at other side projects he would like to finish up, including helping to see the Manhattanville expansion through as far as possible, before giving an apparently earnest answer that he wishes to continue as an educator and a scholar after he steps down from leadership.
The next question was far more topical, and regarded PrezBo’s reaction to the controversy surrounding the SEAS faculty’s recent vote of no confidence in Dean Peña-Mora. PrezBo expressed nothing but confidence in “Feni,” reminding the attendees that he is still a new dean, and that the engineering school has seen a great deal of improvement, both in the rankings beyond them, over the past few years.
Another student asked about how space would be allocated on the Manhattanville campus, and whether or not shifting academic departments and faculty up north would free some space in Morningside. Bollinger replied that it indeed would, and brought up a potential plan to relocate the business graduate school to Manhattanville and use Uris as student and office space. Acknowledging the shortage of meeting places on campus, PrezBo began a sentence with “Lerner is wonderful…” but was unable to complete it after the entire audience burst out in a roar of irrepressible laughter.
After a few questions relating to funding and financial aid, the topic of global centers arose, and it appeared PrezBo had been waiting for this one. He asked for a show of hands from audience members who had been to China, and when only a few rose above the sea of listeners’ heads, followed it up with a statement of how he believes strongly that as part of an education in our changing world, all students should spend time in other parts of the globe. He then gave the floor to Kenneth Prewitt, who is in charge of the Global Centers initiative. Prewitt spent some time explaining the university’s goal of providing all students with ample experience in other cultures as part of a pseudo-Core sometime in the future, and expressed genuine faith in the power of a global education. Prewitt wrapped up by rehashing the new Fifth Year Fellows Program, which is sort of a trial run for the administration’s vision of globe-hopping Columbians.
The next major issue to be raised was that of student wellness, and particularly the frequent incidences of depression and suicide on college campuses. KevSho responded by enumerating some of the resources available to students—counseling, RAs, and advising deans—before thanking the student body itself for embarking on the Student Wellness Project and being so eager in general to confront the issues clouding the emotional and mental health of their peers.
This was soon followed by the toughest question of the night: how is the administration going to address the criticisms of a lack of transparency at Columbia? Responding with what at first seemed like an artful dodge, PrezBo stated that though people can clamor and pine for it, at a certain level complete transparency is just not possible—”the world just doesn’t work that way.” He went on to say that there will always be things the administration keeps under wraps, such as the details of the process for awarding tenure to professors. Unwilling to be deterred from the heart of the issue, the student asked boldly, “Well, what about the McKinsey report? Will that be made public?” Impressively, PrezBo did not shy away from the question, and responded first with a story of how the university is undergoing restructuring through the creation of executive committees and increased “democratization” to provide the faculty with representatives to the administration. So Columbia decided to enlist the help of the consulting firm McKinsey in order to better understand the differing roles and responsibilities of the various admin bodies. The contents of the report, however, are confidential per the original agreement with McKinsey, and thus will not be made public, according to PrezBo. He added that the report has become a bit of a diversion, and that the administration is ready to talk about these issues, but the discussion has instead continually shifted to McKinsey’s recommendations, detracting from the quality of the conversations.
Bollinger addressed a few more minor questions, then asked the crowd if they had any specific grievances (most of them related to space for students) before ending the night with a warmhearted, seemingly honest message about how students should treasure their time here at school, because it is so radically different from the rest of the world. His warm words captivated the room, and he received a round of applause as the chat came to a close.