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Scholars, Spies, and Academic Freedom

Last night, Vice-President of the Arts & Sciences Nicholas Dirks delivered the annual University Lecture, entitled “Scholars and Spies: Worldly Knowledge and the Predicament of the University.” The following classified report was submitted by Bwog’s own scholarly spy, Peter Sterne (who—full disclosure—is in Dirks’ CC class).

James Bond is actually Bwog's correspondent

Classical music came from the speakers as people scrambled to find seats inside a surprisingly packed Low Rotunda, in anticipation of Nicholas Dirks’ speech on spies and scholars. The piped-in music almost gave Bwog the feeling of being at a 19th century Viennese opera—or at least it would have, if everyone in the audience had not been on their smartphones. Opening remarks were provided by Prezbo, who admitted, “we’re all trying to figure out, what does globalization mean?” and John Coatsworth, who thanked Dirks for hiring him as Provost. Finally, Dirks took the stage.

He began with a brief history of area studies—the interdisciplinary study of specific regions of the world—showing how it emerged from World War II. Many of the scholars who founded the first area studies departments at American universities, he explained, worked as intelligence analysts during the war. Specifically, they worked for the Research & Analysis (R&A) division of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. The OSS, by the way, was founded by William Donovan, a Columbia College graduate nicknamed “Wild Bill” for his skills on the gridiron.

Donovan recruited fellow Ivy scholars to staff the OSS and produce reports on different countries the United States had relations with during World War II. At the time, though, there weren’t many American academics who studied modern foreign countries, so Donovan had to improvise. The guy assigned to study the British empire, for instance, was a scholar of Tudor England. It wasn’t until the war ended that American universities started to study contemporary foreign countries in earnest, through the creation of area studies departments created by OSS alums.

Area studies continued to grow throughout the Cold War, but declined after the fall of the Soviet Union, as the academy began to emphasize global interconnectedness of regions rather than the importance of individual regions themselves. While supporting the increased focus on global studies, Dirks reminded the audience that “we must study not just the connectedness of things, but the things that connect.”

The new trend of global studies, he added, requires understanding both global patterns that influence different regions of the world and local issues that vary by region and influence global development. These are issues that Columbia must wrestle with as we expand through our global centers program, and it is not aways easy. Dirks recalled one time when Prezbo went to Beijing and was chewed out by Chinese officials unhappy that Columbia professors were studying Tibet.

Never fear, though. After the lecture, Prezbo told us that he had never let any foreign country’s concerns interfere with Columbians’ academic freedom. We wondered whether his firmness on this point might have made some countries scrap plans for Columbia global centers, but Prezbo assured us that hasn’t happened yet. In the end, every country has been willing to accommodate Columbia’s insistence on academic freedom. For now, at least, it seems Columbia’s global expansion has allowed scholars to engage the world without being viewed as spies.

Daniel Craig’s intense face via Wikimedia Commons

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  • seriously says:

    @seriously do you not have people that can write reviews? i’m tempted to offer up my services for the holder event because it would be sad to read about it so flatly

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous You should do it!

    2. ps says:

      @ps sorry about my grumpiness y’allll. i shouldn’t take it out on anyone :( this is good sterne…..forgive my initial grumpiness…still, i might write something

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous you, sir, are everything that is wrong with this school. (oh, and your apology was “flat”)

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous but instead you’ll just be grumpy and complain again tomorrow

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