The blurry light of knowledge

The blurry light of knowledge

On Tuesday evening the ever-indomitable President Bollinger hosted one of his intimate (75 guests), candid (carefully prepared questions), and free-food decked Fireside Chats at 60 Morningside Drive. Curious staircase climber Alexandra Avvocato was in attendance, ready to both report and eat as many miniature sliders as possible. 

Climbing up the marble staircase of Bollinger’s mansion, the real appeal of the night became clear: the nosh. Miniature burgers, miniature cupcakes, probably not homemade cider, and other high-end treats rewarded the lucky lottery winners, who immediately descended on the snack table like hungry vultures. Discussion with other attendees revealed that students had some real and pertinent questions to ask PrezBo, and were not, like Bwog, solely concerned with what kind of conditioner he uses.

Topics that came up included alumni funding, the current state of Manhattanville, and the ever-present space problem at Columbia — unfortunately, none of those topics managed to come up during the actual questioning period. After  eating and meeting, we were  ushered into the next room, where we awaited the man’s arrival: his two bottles of San Pellegrino and stool waiting (why a stool? Why not a plush armchair? An ottoman? What does the stool symbolize?).

PrezBo arrived with little fanfare, beginning the night mentioning he’d been under the weather, and including the traditional comment that we could ask him whatever we liked, and he could answer or not answer whatever he liked. The first question of the evening was from a Divest rep, asking about Columbia’s plans on divesting. ‘Bo smoothly replied, defining the issue as a “classic case of line drawing,” bringing up Columbia’s divesting from cigarette companies, and ultimately stating that divesting from fossil fuels was not in that category — in other words, no plans from Bollinger to divest as of yet.

The mood lightened somewhat when the next student complained that more Canadian speakers did not appear at Columbia, and proceeded to offer his family’s services (who run a cultural center in Canada) to ameliorate this under-representation. PrezBo graciously gave the student contact information. Other students tittered.

‘Bo really got into his groove when discussing the School of the Arts, agreeing with a comment that it wasn’t well enough promoted and was “a hidden gem.” Big surprise: the SoA hasn’t always been fully supported, and Bollinger and his team are doing work to build up the School’s visibility. He also “believe[s] that the arts ought to be integrated in everything,” and acknowledged that the SoA was “lacking” in areas like scholarships.

Arts as a subject continued: the requisite favorite book/piece of music/art question was asked. Just like last year, PrezBo constantly returns to Shakespeare, Montaigne, and threw in Keats and Woolf for intrigue. He likes Mozart, Chopin, and, in the unequivocally best quote of the night, admitted that “I’m kind of a bourgeois person.” Amid the waves of laughter, he chuckled, “I think I’ll stop there.”  Dreams do come true.

The real theme of the night, though, was globalization. PrezBo took a question on Columbia’s relationship with the world as a take-off point for his love of the Global Centers, and Columbia’s increasing emphasis on globalization. He polled students about the World Leader’s Forum, asking who liked it and who attended. ‘Bo also discussed his own experience in becoming the president of the University and trying to increase his personal global experience, recalling a moment when he realized that he “couldn’t be president of Columbia and not have been to India.”

One of Bollinger’s greatest beliefs is in a “university being in contact with the outside world,” and how university students, and universities in general, could “go about adjusting…to this new world.” He also encouraged every student to take as full advantage of the Global Centers as they could, hoping that in five years everyone would raise their hand to his question of who had been to China, India, or Africa. (Fun fact: ‘Bo went to Brazil as a student at 17. We wonder what the sea air did for his flowing locks.)

One of the most personal and difficult questions came from a student of color at Columbia, who described the negative experiences he and his friends had had — to the extent that his friends had taken leave for depression — experiencing a lack of support from Columbia and feeling regarded as diversity statistics for the University. Bollinger responded equally genuinely, emphatically stating that “we don’t like hearing things like that at all,” confirming his belief in diversity, and promising to privately follow up with the student and his friends.

He confirmed that the motivation behind Columbia’s diversity was not for statistics, and mentioned a study that was being done to understand these issues and questions. It was clear that he didn’t have a prepared answer for this sort of comment, and the discussion put the room in a somber mood for a while afterwards.

A few quick questions were thrown and rapidly answered, such as prospective new majors (Bollinger hasn’t thought about it, but toyed with a global affairs/global studies idea, and thinks that undergrads should be able to learn more about law), and how a student could make the most of her remaining time here (‘Bo’s advice: ask the people you respect for 3 interesting books, and, of course, take advantage of The Holy Global Centers). In response to the question, “What do you expect from us?” PrezBo emphasized the need for interest in ideas and knowledge, and the necessity of pushing to improve both oneself and Columbia.

“We’re after truth and doing things good for the world…you can tell us and help us and push us to change,” he clarified. His lighthearted addendum that “you should also be nice people” introduced Bollinger’s hatred for the “anonymous blog post world.” (Bwog attempted to make direct eye contact at this point.) He called it a collective problem that we “have an obligation to denounce,” connecting it a little later to the inevitable question of changing First Amendment rights in the new world of  journalism. Answer to that one: too early to tell.

Bollinger ended the night by asking the crowd a few questions — again, touching on the WLF and abroad experiences, but also inquired on the Columbia experience in general. He seemed satisfied at the positive replies offered, and commiserated with the crowd about job prospects. With an inscrutable tone in his voice, PrezBo finally asked us, “How does the future look? Does it seem bright?” The answers, like most of those of the night, were mixed.