To our new students, I say: "Welcome to the greatest College, in the greatest University, in the greatest city in the world." To continuing students, I will say more simply, "Welcome back." You already know the rest.
I am honored to serve as interim Dean of the College and Vice President for Undergraduate Education. My transition to Dean from being simply Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Chemistry was a sudden one. Only a week ago I had no idea that this would be happening. But the road to Hamilton Hall has been a long one - one that started in a tiny coal-mining community in Appalachia with a population smaller than the number of students I teach in General Chemistry courses, and a high school graduating class the same size as a section of Lit Hum. I was the first in my family to attend college, and in the first few weeks there, was pretty much terrified. But I did manage to graduate, and as valedictorian, from the University of Pittsburgh, got an M.S. degree from The University of Chicago, a Ph. D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and was a post-doc at that school in Cambridge, Mass., that is erroneously considered to be our peer. I was fortunate to do graduate and post-doctoral research with two different Nobel Prize winners. I was a Professor at the University of California, Irvine before coming to Columbia in 1991.
I have been involved with the College and with College students for the entire twenty years I have been at Columbia, and this has been the most rewarding part of my Columbia experience. I have served on every College committee, have been leading the new Science Research Fellows effort, and last year developed the "Energy and Energy Conservation" course that satisfies the Core Science Requirement.
Many things make Columbia College special, but the Core is special among the special. The Core is not just a collection of required courses; it is the identity of Columbia College and the expression of our ideals. Among those ideals is the ironclad commitment to offer admission to the College based on ability to contribute to and benefit from the opportunities the College offers, not based on the ability to pay. The essential corollary of this is financial aid that removes ability to pay as a factor in students accepting our offers of admission.
My first few days as Dean have been spent listening to students, faculty, and alumni about their experience of and desires for the College. It is clear that primary among these is the desire for transparency in decision-making, and communication of information about the decision process. This we will provide, and in many different ways.
Student government representatives with whom I met today suggested that an important initial step in that communication would be a video introducing myself to you. That is a good suggestion, and one that I am acting on immediately. We expect to have such a video ready next week.
I have always told my students that the best way to have good ideas is to have many ideas, and the way to have many ideas is to engage everyone in thinking about issues of mutual concern. I welcome ideas from everyone in the Columbia College community. We have created a special email account for the submission of these ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look forward to meeting you and to working with you in the months ahead.
Roar, Lions, Roar!
James J. Valentini
September 9, 2011