The Path to Lives of Significance

Matthew Septimus

I write this message from the den of my home in New Jersey, weeks before the start of the academic year, with many uncertainties facing all of us at the College. I have been spending a lot of time in this room, which I never thought would serve as my dean’s office, but here I am, and yes, it does. I am fortunate to be healthy, to be together with at least part of my family and to have this place to work from. Many others are not so fortunate. The effects of this pandemic have been devastating. My sympathy goes out to those for whom the cost has been high.

Our campus appears to me most often now as the virtual background during a Zoom call. My morning and evening transits along College Walk — to and from Hamilton Hall, with frequent stops to chat with students or faculty — have been replaced by 12 steps on a staircase and nine paces through the living room, stopping to pet our aging, adorable dog.

These are strange and sobering times. The scale of today’s crises, the way they have permeated every aspect of our lives, the continuing uncertainties and the unresolved problems weigh on everyone.

The pandemic has rewritten the rules of college life, not just at Columbia College but also at almost every school in the country. It has certainly been difficult to plan for a year in which the majority of our students cannot be on campus, and a year during which the traditional activities that join us as a community must yield to the imperatives of public health. What we once took for granted now feels precious — seeing students lounging on Low Steps or throwing frisbees on South Lawn; sharing the beauty of tree-lined College Walk with students, faculty and visitors; taking in the elegance of the windows of Butler Library illuminated at night.

But as daunting as this year may be, we can embrace it as an opportunity to display our ability to respond to any challenge while remaining focused on our objectives. We are always looking for new ways of doing things, ways that we never would have thought to look for were it not for the disruption of the normal. It is most certainly a time when the discipline of Beginner’s Mind will show its value.

As some of you know, the centennial celebration of the Core Curriculum was cut short due to the sudden dissolution of our campus lives in March. I’m pleased to share that we’ll continue our focus on the Centennial into its 101st year, as Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, in particular, employ the works of the Core to investigate social justice and individual rights and responsibilities. The incoming class has just finished reading the first six books of Homer’s Iliad, in tandem with Claudia Rankine’s 2014 lyrical poem Citizen: An American Lyric, a newer text that focuses on race, visibility and violence in modern America. These first-years and all others taking a Core class this year will continue the project of critically considering how society functions and reflects the values of its citizens, a deliberate and reflective experience needed now as much as ever.

Our Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights will expand its programming to increase opportunities for our entire community to learn, listen and participate in the repair of flawed systems, the reassertion of individual responsibilities and the recognition of opportunities to take action. The new Global Columbia Collaboratory will move forward from its summer pilot phase to engage even more students in the projects of societal renewal made imperative by the pandemic, creating opportunities for our undergraduates to connect with global experts — virtually but no less effectively — while tackling issues of worldwide resonance and importance. I feel encouraged that the Columbia College experience will continue to offer our students a path to lives of significance, despite the constraints within which we must operate.

There will be few chances to bring alumni together for a while, but our commitment to staying in touch with you remains undiminished. Your engagement, support and affection for the College will be crucial to bolstering our efforts to navigate this historic year. Current students, managing through an academic experience marked by engagement at a distance, can be uplifted by a strong alumni presence in their lives. New graduates, still gaining their footing, will benefit from the mentorship and guidance of those who have passed through that transition already. And of course, your classmates and friends will be comforted to hear from and connect with you through Class Notes, emails or programs you can all join. A conscious effort to engage one another and maintain our College community matters more now that we will see each other less.

Stay safe, and be well.

James J. Valentini