Columbia College announces the Eric H. Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights

Friday, November 17, 2017

Columbia College has announced the Eric H. Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights. Named after former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. CC73, LAW76, the Holder Initiative will carve out a distinctive experience for Columbia University’s undergraduate students. Through an anonymous donor, $10 million has been raised to secure the Holder Initiative, halfway towards its $20 million goal of becoming an institute.

With the foundational knowledge nurtured in the Core Curriculum — the College’s distinctive set of common courses required of all College students — as a building block, the Holder Initiative will sponsor courses, public events, student internships and fellowships for practitioners that extend the themes and questions of the Core into a more focused interrogation of the mechanisms that promote justice and civil and political rights. Discouraging retreat into what Holder calls “the quiet prejudice of inaction,” the Holder Initiative will encourage students to “live the Core” by supporting their civic action on and beyond campus.

Initial support for the Holder Initiative came in part from a three-year grant from the Ford Foundation, whose mission is to seek to reduce poverty and injustice, strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation and advance human achievement. Building on the University’s longstanding commitment to advancing knowledge and learning about significant contemporary issues for the public good, the Holder Initiative will ensure that Columbia becomes the world’s most innovative academic institution for the study of historical, contemporary and future visions of justice.

“From the moment Eric and I discussed this idea two years ago, we knew that the Initiative would build on the foundation of our Columbia College Core course Contemporary Civilization, in which students engage fundamental issues of justice, of citizenship, and of rights and responsibilities,” said Columbia College Dean James J. Valentini. “Today marks the culmination of our combined commitment to provide College students opportunities to turn their intellectual learning into action that will advance civil and political rights for all citizens.”

“Eric Holder’s lifelong commitment to active citizenship and public service is woven into the very fabric of Columbia — and nowhere more so than the College and Law School he proudly attended,” said University President Lee C. Bollinger. “Our students, faculty and alumni have a long tradition of working for civil rights, human rights and equal justice. It’s especially appropriate for us to establish an initiative in his name that gives future generations of Columbians a deep grounding in how the great ideas of our Core Curriculum can be applied in practical ways to the ongoing work of a more just society.”

A photo of former US Attorney General Eric Holder

Photo: Ben Hider

Holder — a 1996 recipient of the College’s John Jay Award for distinguished professional achievement and a 2015 recipient of the Hamilton Alumni Medal, the College’s highest honor — was the third longest-serving attorney general and the first African-American to hold the office. He has since rejoined the law firm of Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., where he had been a partner from 2001 until joining the Obama administration. A former University Trustee (2007–2009), Holder was the Columbia College Class Day keynote speaker in 2009, a Dean’s Day speaker in 2013 and the Law School’s graduation speaker in 2010 and 2016. A member of the College’s Board of Visitors (1997–2003, 2003–2007) and of Columbia Law School’s Board of Visitors (1995–2003), Holder received the Law School’s Medal for Excellence in 2010.

Focusing on what Holder describes as “the duties, the rights and the weighty responsibilities of American citizenship,” the Holder Initiative will foster scholarly inquiry, policy debate and public engagement that draws on the principles of the Core, bringing the same integrity, passion and commitment to addressing contemporary social problems that Holder brought into public awareness during his nearly four decades in public service.

“Columbia College generated in me a real desire to explore the underlying truths to the human rights issues that have confronted our nation for so many years. It is my hope that the Initiative will be a means by which — through research, dialogue and practical experience — these issues can be understood and, most importantly, real progress made,” said Holder. “I am especially excited that students will be an integral part of the effort and will carry the work of the Initiative forward for years to come.”

Bernard E. Harcourt, the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law, professor of political science and director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, will serve as the Holder Initiative’s executive director. Harcourt, who holds an A.B. from Princeton and both a J.D. and Ph.D. from Harvard, has focused his scholarship on theories and practices of punishment and surveillance, political economy and critical theory, and penal law and procedure. A passionate advocate for justice, he started his legal career representing death row inmates with Bryan Stevenson at what is now the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and still today continues to represent pro bono inmates sentenced to death and life imprisonment without parole.

“It is a great honor to have this opportunity to work with our remarkable students to pursue justice and social change, particularly during such a challenging time,” said Harcourt. “I sense that there is a genuine thirst for this type of initiative among the undergraduates, and it is thrilling to be able to support their quest for more just societies, especially as an outgrowth of their Core discussions of justice.”

In Spring 2018, the Holder Initiative will sponsor The American Voter Project, a six-part series that will explore the state of voting in the U.S. today. Each of the six events will bring together scholars, politicians, journalists, activists, artists, students and community members to discuss five issues that influence American voting today, followed by a capstone panel on the state of ‘one person, one vote’ in the U.S. today.

The Holder Initiative will offer a new capstone course in Spring 2018, “Power, Rights, and Social Change: Advancing Justice,” which will bridge the Core and contemporary issues of social justice. The Holder Initiative is also working with undergraduate student leaders to create student-centered events in conjunction with the project.

Through the Holder Initiative, undergraduate students also have access to a summer internship program, which provides summer financial support for work in civic and community engagement projects at Columbia and other educational institutions, and with NGOs, businesses and community groups. Along with seven students who received internship funding in Summer 2017, Reniya Dinkins CC’18 was the first to hold the newly established Eric H. Holder Internship at the NAACP-LDF.

“This past summer, the Eric Holder Initiative presented me with a dream opportunity to work at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to assist in building their recently launched Thurgood Marshall Institute,” said Dinkins. “My passion is empowering and uplifting young women of color by helping them to realize their power and potential. After I graduate, I plan to continue to fight for equality and justice for all persons.”

The Holder Initiative’s launch event was held this morning in Low Library, featuring opening remarks by Columbia College Dean James J. Valentini, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger and Dinkins.

The remarks were followed by a panel titled “Living the Core and Advancing Justice,” moderated by Alondra Nelson, professor of sociology and president of the Social Science Research Council, that included, along with Holder and Harcourt, MacArthur “genius” grant winners Ai-jen Poo CC’96, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard and director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. For a video of the livestream, visit the College’s Facebook page.

Holder also participated in a discussion with Patricia Kitcher, the Roberta and William Campbell Professor of Humanities and professor of philosophy and the Carnoy Family Program Chair for Contemporary Civilization, for select Contemporary Civilization students.