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Columbia task force recommends changes to undergrad college

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Columbia University is weighing a controversial set of proposals that would effectively reduce the authority of the dean of the undergraduate Columbia College and make more powerful and visible the university’s executive vice president and dean of arts and sciences. This entails rebranding the vice president as the dean of arts and sciences, one who has more involvement in the college’s curriculum, alumni affairs and budget.

The proposals’ supporters, including outgoing president Lee Bollinger, say that such a plan would increase collaboration and resolve “ambiguities” in the relationship between the college and arts and sciences faculty, who serve multiple schools across the university.

But the proposals’ critics, including the outgoing college dean, many faculty members, the college alumni association, the college’s advisory Board of Visitors and its undergraduate student government, say such a plan is less about working together than it is about centralizing power.

‘A Necessary Sacrifice’?

Some critics, in particular, worry that the university is willing to forever change the college—which is a darling of alumni and therefore donors—to free up resources for and increase giving to the rest of the university. That includes Columbia’s costly, ongoing Manhattanville campus project, they say. (The 17-acre campus in West Harlem is the new home of Columbia’s Business School and a suite of other facilities designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, with future development planned.)

“If enacted, these recommendations would diminish the ability of the dean of Columbia College to promote the success of the students and faculty of Columbia College, which is the central responsibility of the dean,” said James Valentini, the college’s longtime dean, who is stepping down at the end of June (and who declined to comment on why, beyond an earlier statement saying that Bollinger had announced the 2021–22 academic year would be Valentini’s last).

Michael Thaddeus, a professor of mathematics at Columbia who has previously argued that Columbia’s endowment hasn’t kept pace with that of financial peers, and who highlighted the gap between the Manhattanville campus’s estimated price tag of $6.5 billion and fundraising for the project thus far, said that if the college restructuring proposals move forward, “curricular decisions will be slightly more centralized and more directly informed by financial concerns.”

Thaddeus continued, “Many people say that the relationship between arts and sciences and Columbia College is dysfunctional, but they offer very little concrete evidence. A certain amount of conflict is to be expected and is perhaps even desirable if the [executive vice president] tries to maximize revenue, as has recently been the case, while the college dean tries to uphold educational quality.”

Outgoing senior Krishna Menon, who helped draft an 18-page Columbia College Student Council statement against the changes and organize a pre-emptive council vote of no confidence in the Bollinger administration should the changes take effect, said that Bollinger “thinks this is the only way to save the [faculty of arts and sciences] from their current financial situation, and he views the college as a necessary sacrifice in order to make this happen. The college is largely ahead of any of the other schools at Columbia in terms of fundraising, but this money is generally allocated to and reserved for the college.”

Columbia denies that this plan is driven by financial concerns, arguing that the college is already part of the broader arts and sciences budget. Columbia also denies that there is any plan, at all, as conversations are still happening.

Ben Chang, university spokesperson, said, “Columbia is committed to a process that is inclusive, respectful, and produces the best possible path forward in service of our teaching and research mission. The task force process is ongoing.”

This isn’t the first time that restructuring the college has been floated—or proved contentious. Most recently, in 2011, then dean of the college Michele M. Moody-Adams announced that she was resigning at the end of the academic year over disagreements about reorganization plans, with Bollinger then announcing that Moody-Adams would leave immediately. In an email to college donors and alumni, Moody-Adams reportedly said that the changes under consideration would “transform the administrative structure” of the faculty of arts and sciences, compromising her authority over “crucial policy, fund-raising and budgetary matters.” (A consulting report from McKinsey & Company from around the same time suggested, among other changes, redesigning “high-level [arts and sciences] organization structure and key decision rights to improve decision making effectiveness and top-level coordination.”)

Now that Bollinger is entering his last year as president of Columbia (he’s announced he’s stepping down next summer), restructuring the college with respect to the broader arts and sciences faculty again appears to be one of his top priorities. His first new move on this front was to appoint the Task Force on the Relationship of the Arts & Sciences and Columbia College last year.

“This relationship has a long, storied history. It also has profound effects on the governance, culture and fiscal realities of the arts and sciences, the college, and, indeed, the entire university,” Bollinger said in an announcement about the review. “The goal of the task force is to review how we got to the current structure, evaluate how that structure works in fact, take stock of the strengths and weaknesses that structure yields, consider how peer institutions organize themselves with respect to these matters, and, finally, produce a report before the beginning of the spring term with recommendations for the future.”

Bollinger said the task force “will have no power of enforcement or implementation” and acknowledged that this area of organization “can sometimes be highly controversial, even contentious.”

Recommendations

The task force, which included numerous faculty members, issued its report in April, saying, “We must explore how Columbia can further raise its level of excellence and move into a new era of growth and understanding.”

“Columbia College is our crown jewel and is central to the mission of the university,” the task force wrote, acknowledging the college’s signature Core Curriculum as a major part of that allure. The arts and sciences faculty, meanwhile, is “essential to our institutional excellence. Departmental successes, over the years, have been innumerable, and all of them enhance the whole. These successes depend upon the full support of the university; as such, the entire enterprise must be viewed through a lens of collaboration.”

With a new college dean coming on board, this fall “presents an opportunity to introduce an environment of joint responsibility to the incoming Class of 2026 and to our entire undergraduate community,” the task force wrote. To that end, the current executive vice president and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences should be renamed the dean of arts and sciences, in recognition of “the important academic responsibilities of this position rather than emphasizing the accompanying administrative aspects of the role.”

Regarding the curriculum, the task force recommended expanding the Committee on Instruction to include graduate programs in the arts and sciences, with a new faculty chair reporting directly to the would-be dean of arts and sciences and the dean of the college. Both deans would serve as voting members. Currently, the college dean is a co-chair of the committee, along with the dean of the School of General Studies, and their work is focused on undergraduate education.

“There is one faculty, responsible for all parts of the curriculum from core classes for first-year undergraduates to seminars for advanced doctoral students; much of our teaching also brings together students across departments, programs, years, levels and schools,” the task force said. “Columbia College and the arts and sciences will best thrive if our structures, while preserving and renewing college-only programs, reflect and manage that integration.”

Addressing the historically strong identification of Columbia alumni—and alumni giving—with the undergraduate college, in particular, the task force said that “interaction with college alumni leadership and broader segments of the alumni population should be the joint responsibility of the dean of Columbia College and the dean of arts and sciences.” Both deans would have “access to the alumni leaders for their counsel and support, and would, together, increase the impact of alumni leaders throughout the college and the arts and sciences,” the report says. “Further, both deans should be encouraged to meet with smaller groups of alumni or individual alumni, and regularly should travel together and individually on regional swings to which groups of alumni are invited to attend.”

Despite concerns among many that restructuring college oversight in this way would hurt the college and risk college alumni giving, the task force said it “believes that a coordinated approach would untap potential for both the college and the arts and sciences” and that existing development offices should be reorganized to serve both the college and the arts and sciences as a whole.

Regarding budgets, the task force said that the dean of arts and sciences and the college dean should form a working group, led by the provost and with the central finance team, to offer proposals for reorganizing the “current budget systems that would not negatively impact the future of the Core Curriculum.”

On student wellness and experience, the task force said the college dean, “while a steadfast advocate for students in the classroom, curricular issues, and avenues of study, would also remain the leader of the larger undergraduate student experience, overseeing admissions and financial aid, student affairs, residential life, advising, student leadership opportunities, and other co-curricular support. This would include both the continuous enhancement of the Core Curriculum and of majors and upper-division opportunities.”

Objections

While a majority of the task force apparently supported all these recommendations, one member, college alumnus Brian Krisberg, a partner at Sidley Austin focused on real estate capital markets, issued a public dissent.

In a statement disagreeing with his colleagues, Krisberg said that he had experience with the issues at hand, including as an invited member of Bollinger’s ad hoc study group following Moody-Adams’s resignation in 2011. And “putting aside” questions of why the task force was formed now, with Bollinger’s 20-year tenure ending and a new administration on the way, Krisberg said he took issue with the task force’s methods and results. On process, Krisberg said the curricular recommendations were the work of a “handful of faculty members carefully appointed by the president” and purport “to be a near consensus without multilateral discussion.” The task force, he also said, “spoke to no faculty members from outside our ranks or school deans who might have a different perspective,” nor did it study the curricular structures at other Ivy League institutions or the structure of Columbia’s current Committee on Instruction.

On content, Krisberg said, “At its core, tensions in the arts and sciences/college relationship derive from revenue generation and allocation and authority over budgeting and spending in an underfunded division. The task force heard presentations on these topics but did not spend extensive time weighing options to address the current predicament.”

In any case, he said, “to college students and alumni, the dean of the college personifies the Core Curriculum, need-blind admission and full funding of financial aid and ceremonial moments like arriving on campus and moving from [student] status to being an alum. There really is no scenario acceptable to alumni and students where the dean of the college is not fully empowered to lead the development and execution of Core Curriculum matters, financial aid policy and major curricular innovations.”

The college’s Board of Visitors said in a separate statement that it disagreed with much of the task force report and agreed with Krisberg on many points. Specific concerns include that the proposals would “downgrade the role of the college dean so precipitously that these changes would substantially impede the ability of the college dean to advance the interests of undergraduates in the university.” Except in the realm of student affairs, the board said, “the task force report reduces the authority of the college dean to advocacy and transfers the authority, either completely or substantially, elsewhere. Advocacy is not another kind of authority. It instead serves as evidence of the absence of authority.”

The Columbia College Alumni Association released a separate statement strongly disagreeing with the task force report.

“We are foremost concerned about the changes that will diminish the roles and responsibilities of the college dean,” it said. “The college dean is the primary steward of the Core Curriculum and the proposed changes would diminish his or her role in this regard. The new college dean on July 1 should have the same roles and authority of the current college dean.”

Beyond alumni, current students also oppose the recommendations. The Columbia College Student Council issued a pre-emptive vote of no confidence in the Bollinger administration, should the recommendations of the task force take effect.

“Diminishing the role of the dean of Columbia College and instituting a dean of arts and sciences strips undergraduates of an advocate who is able to act on their behalf, distancing students from faculty and the administration as a result,” the council said in a lengthy statement. “The revised [Committee on Instruction] will be incapable of making necessary changes to improve academics for both students and faculty. The task force instead places power in the hands of administrators who never interact with undergraduate students, much less understand our needs.”

Moreover, the group said, “Conflating the financial well-being of the university with curricular excellence diminishes the insight and influence of faculty and significantly harms the undergraduate academic experience.”

Menon, the college student council vice president, said the task force’s references to joint fundraising all allude to how the proposals “would drastically shift how much of the money fundraised by the college actually goes to the college.”

The college is a favorite for donors: as noted in the Board of Visitors statement, the college’s Core to Commencement giving campaign has raised well over $700 million, “more than any other college faculty and student support initiative in Columbia history.” This includes $275 million for financial aid and $50 million for the Core Curriculum, and more funding for 27 endowed professorships and arts and sciences programs and facilities.

But while donors value the college, Menon and others said they feel the Bollinger administration has focused more on graduate students than undergraduates. Menon cited faculty and student pushback against reports that Columbia could attempt to increase undergraduate enrollment by more than 10 percent, including overwhelmingly negative responses to a college student council survey about dining hall and library seating capacity and ability to get into course sections for Core Curriculum before they were capped. (Other faculty members said that increasing class sizes for the core or hiring even more non-tenure-track instructors to teach them is not the way to solve this problem.)

An Administrative ‘Construct’?

Among students, opposition to the task force extends beyond the college. The School of General Studies, a liberal arts college for returning and nontraditional students, has its own student council, which is also opposed to the task force recommendations. In statement, the council said that the proposed new Committee on Instruction would naturally diminish the focus on undergraduate education and undergraduates’ well-being, and on general studies students and their needs perhaps most of all, since the dean of general studies would no longer be a committee leader. The students noted that the task force report doesn’t ensure student representation on the committee, whereas the current undergraduate committee includes students.

Despite all the concerns, Columbia says the main recommendation is to create a combined committee on instruction as a way to streamline the course approval process, given that arts and sciences is a single faculty body teaching both undergraduate and graduate students.

Elaine Sisman, Anne Parsons Bender Professor of Music at Columbia and an opponent of the proposals, said her worst fears are reductions in college financial aid, increased employment of non-tenure-track faculty members and, most of all, threats to the Core Curriculum, “the oversight of which can only remain in the college with which it is so strongly identified and in the hands of the faculty supported by the dean.”

“Putting the curriculum in the hands of the person in charge of the budget is a bad idea and has already started playing out in very bad ways,” Sisman said, calling the arts and sciences at Columbia a bureaucratic “construct,” not an entity with which students and alumni identify. “The [executive vice president] already controls the budget and authorizes departmental hiring and expenditures. But only the college dean is responsible to a school and its students, to its required and elective curricula, to the faculty who teach them.”

The arts and sciences Policy and Planning Committee polled faculty members this month on their thoughts about the task force report, or, more accurately, on a set of principles loosely based on the recommendations. In response to the vote, students launched a “Save the College” campaign on social media.

The planning committee did not respond to a request for comment about the results of the vote. Some wonder why the vote happened at all, given the widespread opposition to the task force report from students and alumni.

“It is a mystery to me,” Sisman said.

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