With its last appearance in the public eye being in a Columbia College Today Spring 2020 magazine, the once-promised “Beginner’s Mind Institute” suddenly finds itself back into public memory.

Since the announcement and sudden withdrawal of George Yancopolous (CC ’80, GSAS ’86, PS ’87) as Columbia College’s Class Day Speaker of 2022, Yancopoulos has been the topic of conversation for many at the University. Debates on the fact of his withdrawal—and whether his decision is related to either his controversial “All Lives Matter” beliefs or the ethical concerns over his company Regeneron’s privileged access to experimental COVID-19 testing during the Trump administration—have made their way to the foreground. However, another, less talked-about question has surfaced amidst current discussion: Whatever happened to his 2019 $10 million surprise commitment to found the “Beginner’s Mind Institute” at Columbia University?

On November 21, 2019, George Yancopoulos was invited to the annual Alexander Hamilton Dinner, a fundraising event to support financial aid, scientific research, and the Core Curriculum, to receive an award of recognition by the College. There, he announced his $10 million commitment to establish a “Beginner’s Mind Institute” at the University. “I believe,” said Yancopolous at the 2019 dinner, “that there is nothing more important than helping the next generation to face and conquer the truly existential threats, the challenge[s] of humankind…it became so clear to me that Beginner’s Mind defines both the key to uniting humanity to do great things as well as the key to using science to address the most devastating threats to humanity, from disease to climate change.” According to a 2019 Spectator article, the intention was to center his new Institute around the active addressing of prejudice and “existential challenge[s]” that underlie current society. 

Yancopoulos, in his acceptance speech, mentioned Dean Valentini before his decision to commit $10 million to establishing the “Beginner’s Mind Institute.” Both have similar interests in the Buddhist “Beginner’s Mind” concept and how it could drive scientific progress and real change in the world. Even during the pandemic, they appeared in Columbia panel discussions together about biotechnology and therapeutic development to solve the COVID-19 crisis, exploring how science and the “Beginner’s Mind” can combat the “most pressing” challenges and bring people together through innovation. Yancopoulos did not notify a single person of his substantial commitment prior to the event. When it comes to any commitment or monetary gift, announcements usually occur at the end of years of planning and development. For instance, the recent announcement of the $250 million donation from the Vagelos family to forgive medical student debt for the College of Physicians and Surgeons reached public news after years of discussion, planning, and consultation. 

The surprise nature of the Yancopoulos’ commitment means such a solid plan for the distribution and use of funds was not yet in place, which is perhaps why, only two years after the announcement, the “Beginner’s Mind Institute” does not exist. Nevertheless, the Institute has not been advertised or otherwise mentioned in University statements since 2019. So, what happened to the $10 million commitment?

First, it is important to understand that a commitment is not the same as a donation. Whereas a donation demands the immediate exchange of money from a donor to the organization, a commitment is purely a pledge. It is not legally binding; instead, it is solely a promise to eventually invest $10 million into the College, so long as administrators work with Yancopoulos in planning to develop and establish his desired Institute. Thus, because the Institute does not exist yet, no $10 million from Yancopoulos was given to the University.

Factoring in the Thanksgiving and winter break after the November 2019 announcement—as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, which became Regeneron’s top priority—it is likely there has been very little time for the University and Yancopoulos to plan this project. Furthermore, the Dean of Columbia College would be the other major player involved in the creation of this Institute specifically for College undergraduates. As the current Dean Valentini—also the main champion of the Beginner’s Mind philosophy at Columbia—announced his stepping down as Dean of Columbia College in June 2022, the viability of this supposed Institute remains even more uncertain.

So, the future of the “Beginner’s Mind Institute” is unclear, and its past is just as vague. It is impossible to say what it would look like, how it would be structured, how the $10 million would be distributed, or what it would have done, simply because there have been no official updates since the announcement. Any thoughts about planning the Institute were sidetracked by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it cannot be determined if the establishment of this Institute will ever be revisited. Thus, when considering the larger picture of Yancopoulos’ professional relationship with the University, one can notice that this story adds to its complexity. After all, the same man who received the highest University award and hosted guest speaker discussions somehow also inherited the legacy of a forgotten $10 million and a sudden withdrawal from speaking at this year’s Columbia College Class Day.

Past Graduation Ceremony via Bwog Archives