Last night, lucky students (along with invited guests like CCSC President Karishma Habbu, ESC President Tim Qin, and members of the media) spent an evening in PrezBo’s house for one of his famous “Fireside Chats,” dining on fine cuisine (mini hot dogs, mini burgers, regular size chicken fingers, and cookies) and discussing the state of the university. Bwog’s presidential pyromaniac Peter Sterne reports.

Students brought all kinds of gripes to the president, from inadequate advising to the lack of a formal linguistics major. Some were old news to PrezBo, such as student unhappiness with advising, which, he recalled, has come up at every fireside chat for the last few years, though lately “students have been less unhappy” about it. Some issues surprised him. When someone brought up Columbia’s dubious distinction as the most stressed school in the U.S. (according to last year’s Newsweek ranking), PrezBo seeemed incredulous. “It’s not the most stressful university in the country, is it really?” he asked the assembled students, who all replied, more or less, that it was. “Well,” he acknowledged, “I don’t know what to say.”

But he had anticipated most questions. When someone asked about the problems facing the Arts Initiative, he had an polished answer at the ready: the arts are “underinvolved” in the university, so he’s committed to the Arts Initiative; yes, it was started in his office but has since been moved to the School of the Arts; yes, the University will remain committed to the initiative; no, the rumors about the School of the Arts defunding the Initiative are not true; but of course, in this economy you have to acknowledge that budgets will be cut; and so on.

The economy did not dominate the discussion, but it came up repeatedly. After one student questioned why Columbia wasn’t more pre-professional—teaching students the skills that employers wanted to see—PrezBo asked whether students were concerned about their job prospects and student loans. “Be honest about this, I know everybody wants to say they are [in debt, but] how many view the debt you will have as [something that] really worries them?” he asked the audience. Surprisingly few hands went up. In general, observed one student who proudly declared he had taken a sociology class, students at Columbia are “pretty much guaranteed to be in the middle class” when they graduate, despite the recession. “Part of our education, though, is looking beyond our own perspectives,” noted another student, who had probably taken an anthropology class. “I feel like the weight of what might be happening to people our age at other schools should be felt by us.”

The topic that loomed largest, though, was globalization and the purpose of Columbia’s network of eight Global Centers. PrezBo spent nearly half the hour allotted to discussion elaborating on his vision of Columbia as a global university. It’s epic in scope. To hear PrezBo tell it, the Global Centers are intended to profoundly change the university, encouraging all students and faculty to pursue interdisciplinary and global studies. The Centers are superior to branch campuses with separate faculties and student bodies, PrezBo believes, because branch campuses “don’t change the home institution enough.” Right now, American students tend to focus on American issues, since Columbia is located in the United States; eventually, with (free) travel to Columbia’s Global Centers, maybe students will write about issues in both the United States and foreign countries.

It’s an audacious vision, and PrezBo is probably right that this will be the educational model of 2050, but we can’t help but wonder—aren’t there issues on this campus that need to be addressed? Or are these big visions just part of the job for university presidents—the presidents of Yale and NYU spent years bringing branch campuses to Singapore and Abu Dhabi, respectively—while running the actual university is the job of lower-level admins?

It’s also worth noting (and several students in attendance specifically asked Bwog to note this) that PrezBo failed to fully answer many of the questions asked. For instance, SGB chair David Fine, CC ’13, asked a question about why student representatives were not included on the Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid, prefacing his question by saying that including students on such committees would lead to a stronger community. In response, PrezBo spent ten minutes discussing community at Columbia—talking about how alumni ties have been strengthened and how Columbia is still recovering from its nadir in the 70s—before noting that he generally “supported having students on committees.” The discussion was interesting, but it did not answer David’s specific question.

President Karishma Habbu, CC ’13, then described her experience on the CC Dean Search Committee, where she interacted with faculty and administrators, and asked why there weren’t more events that brought students, faculty, and administrators together in conversation. “Like fireside chats, for instance,” PrezBo deadpanned. Everyone laughed, but afterward, many felt his response had been too glib. When other students asked him about specific policies—Athletics’ marginalization of club sports or Columbia’s lack of coverage for students’ abortions—Prezbo just referred them to lower-level administrators. Again, many left somewhat disappointed.

It seems to us that the problem with fireside chats is that they’re the Columbia equivalent of the ten letters that Obama reads every night. It’s a great way for the president to get a feel for his constituents’ concerns, and he often provides a sympathetic ear and response, but he’s ultimately just too high up—controlling institutional strategy rather than the implementation of specific policies—to really help those with specific issues. Of course, it’s still worth going to the fireside chats if you’re selected—the food is amazing!