An Optimistic Return to Campus


I write this letter on a day in late July after a long conversation with the student leaders responsible for planning and implementing our New Student Orientation Program (NSOP). Like so much else in the past 18 months, it will be an Orientation like no other. It addresses our newest students, the Class of 2025, and also our rising sophomores, the Class of 2024, who had a purely online Orientation last year. As the students and I sat and talked in Lerner Hall, all of us wearing masks, I learned a lot about their plans for NSOP. I also learned something else, something much more important: that despite all the challenges and difficulties each of these students has faced for a year and a half, a span of time representing more than a third of their undergraduate experience, they were as optimistic and enthusiastic, as imaginative and creative, as any NSOP leadership group of the past. They acted in the spirit of Beginner’s Mind, seeing new possibilities for how to design this experience. Possibilities for our new students and for our not-so-new students, as well as possibilities for themselves. It made me feel — and I think should make all of us feel — optimistic about this year with our return to on-campus classes and residential life.

As I write the verb “return,” I realize that while it is an accurate word for the time — as we indeed are coming back to both a place, our campus, and a set of activities, the education of our students — “return” does not convey what this fall really means for us. That is because we all carry an experience of disruption that will change how we think about our campus and our education. The aphorism “It is impossible to step in the same river twice,” frequently attributed to the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, comes to mind as a wonderfully evocative metaphor for our “return.” How I think about our College and the experiences our students will have within it has been altered from what I thought when writing my dean’s letter for CCT ’s Fall 2019 issue.

Scott Rudd

This year’s NSOP leaders are not trying to replicate the structure, the substance or the feeling of 2019’s Orientation. They know that the river they are stepping into is a quite different one, even if it looks the same. I know we are all cognizant of that, but I hope that in this academic year we take time, individually and collectively, to consider how we see our college now, with the new perspective that disruption has provided. How has our assessment of the undergraduate education we offer been changed? What new opportunities has the pandemic made us aware of? What have we learned that we can use to be an even better college?

I spent a lot of time during the pandemic thinking about the meaning of Heraclitus’s river analogy as it pertains to Columbia College. I would sit on the bank of the Ho-Ho-Kus Brook, just a few steps from my house, which has been my office during much of the last 18 months, and watch the ever-changing water flow by; sometimes I even waded into it. And while I have “returned” the Dean’s Office to Hamilton Hall, I still think about the flowing water in that brook.

As I begin my 11th year as dean, and my 32nd as a Columbia faculty member, I have been thinking about the flow of students through our college, the thousands I have taught, advised, written letters of recommendation for or just chatted with over the years. This issue of CCT has particular meaning for me in that regard. One of the feature stories is about Sam Sternberg ’07, a biochemistry major who graduated during the time I chaired the chemistry department. Sam was a remarkable student in the classroom and in the lab, and an engaging interlocutor outside those scientific spaces. There is a particular pleasure for me in seeing him, the successful academic researcher, in these pages, and thinking back to seeing him in Havemeyer as a student.

For all of us who are faculty members, experiences like this inspire pride in what we do at the College. And no matter how things might continue to change, we know that we will always draw encouragement and satisfaction from seeing our students develop into successful and unique citizens. Roar, Lion(s), Roar!

James J. Valentini