Get to know the College’s new leader in our exclusive Q&A.
Columbia College | Columbia University in the City of New York
Get to know the College’s new leader in our exclusive Q&A.
Josef Sorett knows firsthand how transformative education can be.
The new dean of Columbia College vividly recalls how, as an undergraduate at Oral Roberts University, he struggled to make sense of the role race played in society, which was often left unaddressed by the Christian communities in which he lived. The school offered no formal space to engage with those topics, he says, and there was no institutional willingness to recognize difference. Only one class stood apart, “Theology and Racial Identity,” taken in his junior year with professor Leonard Lovett. There, Sorett found the open conversation he’d been searching for, on subjects he now considers regularly as a scholar working at “the locus of religion, race and American culture.”
“I didn’t see it as the beginnings of a career path,” he says, “but looking back, that’s where I first began to think about the interplay between those concepts in a structured way.”
Today, Sorett is deeply committed to the idea of education as a “source and site” for social transformation. “The College does this,” he says. “It is attentive holistically not just to what our students want to know, and to helping them figure out what they want to do, but also to helping them figure out who they want to be. And then asking them, what responsibility do they have to the broader world?”
Sorett, a professor of religion and African American and African diaspora studies, began his role as dean of the College, the Henry L. and Lucy G. Moses Professor and VP for undergraduate education on July 1. Until recently, he chaired the Department of Religion and had previously been its director of undergraduate studies. He also served as DUS for several years for what was then the Institute for Research in African-American Studies (now the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department). In addition, Sorett is the founding director of Columbia’s Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) and co-chair of the Inclusive Public Safety Advisory Committee. He holds a B.S. in health and exercise science from Oral Roberts, an M.Div. in religion and literature from Boston University and a Ph.D. in African American studies from Harvard.
Eager to introduce himself to the College community, Sorett sat down for an interview with CCT in early August. He talked about his experiences with education, his desire to integrate scholarship with public service, and what excites him most about being dean.
Thank you. I’m feeling very honored and privileged to be in this role at a place like Columbia. I’m really looking forward to Convocation. This group of first-years are beginning their time at the College at the same time that I’m beginning this job. So in some ways, even though I’m in the position of leading the College, I’ll also be learning the College with them. Which is a really exciting part of the larger work. Learning from the wider group of people who make Columbia what it is, which is to say, the students, staff, faculty and alumni, all of whom are deeply concerned that we’re doing our best to fulfill the College’s mission and to make sure that our students have the best experience.
This is also a uniquely exciting moment to be dean, when there are so many questions that are of broader significance. To steward students’ experience while they are here — to provide spaces and language for them to make sense of their world and imagine who they want to be — it’s both a sobering responsibility and an incredible opportunity.
My childhood was spent in and around Boston. My earliest years were in Brookline, Jamaica Plain and Roxbury; after my parents divorced my mother moved to Lincoln, Mass., which is a small Revolutionary-era town. My experience was of always moving back and forth between these areas. I would spend two years in one place, two years in the other.
Jamaica Plain was very much a working-class neighborhood then, in the 1980s, with a diversity of ethnicities — largely Black and Latino but also Irish and Italian Catholic. Lincoln was about as far removed from that culturally and economically as you could get — largely white, except for the street we lived on, where my friends were African American, Peruvian, Cambodian. We all lived in this little housing development that brought diversity to Lincoln in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
My mother worked part time for much of my childhood; she was a nurse. She really tried to be available to me and my younger brother. My father was a taxi driver and a basketball coach/social worker. He and a friend founded an organization, BossTown Affairs, using basketball as a means to help young men find a way out of economic precarity. They were very much trying to create a model and a path and a community — but also to win basketball games [laughs]. I was the 10-year-old kid sitting on the bench of the 16-and-under team, just tagging along.
All of this — the whole milieu that I grew up in — made for a particular kind of biography. To be sure, I have had a complicated set of experiences with race and ethnicity as well as religion. Yet it was all quintessentially, and unexceptionally, a Black American story. It was formative not only to my coming of age as a young man in the 1980s and 1990s, but also proved critical for me, professionally, as it took the shape of academic questions.
Honestly, no! At that point pretty much all I was thinking about was basketball, and Oral Roberts was a place where the coach told me I had a shot to play Division 1 hoops. I visited Tulsa in July, and by August I was there as a freshman. That being said, it was certainly a space that was theologically familiar at the time, and that worked for a while. But actually living and being on campus brought a whole new set of questions to the fore.
Going to school there, I had a quasi-Black college experience. The undergraduate population at Oral Roberts was 20 or 25 percent Black then, higher than any other non-Historically Black College or University at the time; the leadership of the university, not so much. Black students, really from around the world, had a range of experiences on campus, but the university did very little to recognize or celebrate them, and that became frustrating. For example, there was an effort to form a Black student group, but the university wouldn’t allow for it to be named as such. So it became the Association for Ethnic Unity, what I can see now as a sort of Christian spin on classic 1990s multiculturalism.
To be sure, there were all sorts of conversations taking place in the dorms and elsewhere on campus. My freshman-year roommate grew up on an apple farm in Ohio and had never met a Black person. My friends, who were largely African American, would pile into the room, and my roommate would be there, too. We’d all often talk late into the night, not just about race but about our experiences and families, which bore witness to the cultural and racial differences that marked our worlds. Another friend had a roommate who put a Confederate flag on the wall of their dorm room. Our differences would play themselves out in all these different ways. Yet the university provided little, if any, institutional space to talk about it. Christian faith was appealed to as a means for transcending those differences, but everyday social life didn’t work that way.
At that point, it was the early ’90s — there was the Rodney King beating and verdict, the Los Angeles uprisings, the Million Man March. It was a moment of robust discussion concerning race politics in America. Yet within the curriculum and the institution itself there wasn’t a set of resources for thinking about racial difference, and certainly not religious difference, in ways that I found helpful. As I got into my junior and senior year, that led me to a set of questions that were not really about my identity but rather about the way in which race worked, or didn’t work, within the context of the nation, and within the context of Christian community. So by the time I was finishing undergrad, all of these concerns had bubbled up to the forefront of my mind. I decided to pursue a theological degree to begin sorting through some of them in a more sustained way.
No. Definitely not while I was completing my master’s degree at BU. Part of why I pursued a Ph.D. was because I had a sense that education was a resource for social transformation. I had a sense that one could leverage the resources of the university in service to the communities in which I’d been working and the communities I’d come from. So throughout graduate school I was working in churches and the nonprofit world as a researcher, largely trying to find a way to put scholarship into practice. I led a project that was evaluating an education program in Sing Sing prison; another project I led explored how Black churches figured in a set of debates around marriage equality. These were projects that began off campus, and that were driven by philanthropic and civic organizations trying to address public concerns in real time.
Yes. When I joined the faculty in 2009, a number of colleagues helped me find a way to bring the project within the rubrics and structures of Columbia. It was initially a set of convenings that I organized as a professor, bringing together scholars, pastors and activists to think about where and how Black churches fit in a broader set of debates around sexual difference, against the backdrop of the growing marriage equality movement. Basically, creating a brain trust with support from a foundation — very collaborative, very much in Columbia’s longstanding tradition of public-facing scholarship. But, trying to bring the right people together to think with about these questions placed me in a position of leadership on the project. And it also really helped me integrate a set of concerns that I’d been more or less juggling, back and forth, in the nonprofit and academic worlds.
After a while, it seemed that I was the only one asking, “Should this work stay at Columbia?” Eventually, with guidance from a number of colleagues on campus, we made a case that it should be a center, and in 2014 we launched CARSS with an international conference.
So, immediately after I was awarded tenure in 2017, I said yes to several opportunities very deliberately because I was trying to understand what I wanted to do — in a larger sense — at this university. One of those things was serving on the Inclusive Public Safety Advisory Committee. It was the first experience that really gave me a glimpse of Columbia as a whole, the complexity of who we are as a community. I also agreed to serve on the CC/GS Committee on Instruction, and the COI does that as well insofar as you have students, administrators and faculty thinking together, specifically about the academic experience of our undergraduates.
With the inclusive public safety committee, we are thinking about the experience of our students not just in the classroom, but also holistically, alongside staff and faculty, as members of the broader University and our neighboring communities. The committee has people in government and community affairs, people from P&S and Morningside Heights, from Arts & Sciences, SIPA and the School of Social Work. And, at the time I joined, we were thinking about these questions against the backdrop of 2020, which made it more than — but also very specifically about — questions of race, inequality and justice. Both of those committees, public safety and COI, really impressed me as spaces where one can have real impact.
Courtesy Josef Sorett
To watch this range of students — against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s election as President, the growth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, across the 2010s and into the years of Donald Trump’s presidency, and everything in between — really brought to the fore, for me, the kinds of questions that are front of mind for so many of our students. Questions that are not just about what they want to know, but what they want to understand about themselves and the world they are living in.
Yes — in fact, last fall I had the experience of teaching African-American studies in the morning and CC in the afternoon, every Monday and Wednesday. And the range of questions that both courses surface about equality, authority and difference; the way students are trying to understand what this curriculum does or does not put on the table; what it means for who they are and how they fit in relationship to campus and also the broader world — it really helped me see how helping students think through these types of questions is at the heart of what the College does. That’s the power of the Core Curriculum, I think, and of the College as the steward of the holistic undergraduate experience.
The College prides itself on being the most diverse of its peers. That’s something we all celebrate, but it also raises a set of questions around how we can best serve the diversity of our students’ needs and interests. How do we attend to the fullness of their experience, whether they come from a place of economic precarity or an elite independent school, whether they are international students or underrepresented minorities or the first in their family to attend college? How do we support who they are and who they want to be even as those are very much things in process?
On another level, how do we create space and community for our students as a collective; not just as individuals, but also as a University community? How do we facilitate and support thinking together in the face of all the differences that we are proud to claim as part of the institutional identity and mission?
The desire to renew and reforge a sense of community is front of mind for me. We are at an interesting moment on the heels of a couple of really long years (an understatement, if ever there was one) with the pandemic. I want us to think about ways to really bring folks together — with an awareness of evolving public health guidelines, of course — and to do it in a way that is attentive to the connections among students, faculty and alums.
When I think about this last Class Day and the enthusiasm I felt from colleagues on the faculty side, and the enthusiasm from the Classes of 2020 and 2021 to come back, it speaks volumes. I think we have an opportunity to build a community that can propel us forward and energize us in the months and years ahead.
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622 W. 113th St., MC 4530, 4th Fl.
New York, NY 10025