A Life of Citizenship and Engagement

Every year, I share the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights on my Facebook page. Created in 1948 and agreed upon by more than 50 nations at that time, the 30-article resolution states, among other things, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” The declaration was never designed to be all-encompassing, and was not unanimously embraced, but I’ve always felt compelled by the concepts it seeks to convey.

Valentini greets new Lions at Transfer Student Orientation.

Valentini greets new Lions at Transfer Student Orientation.


Here at Columbia College, the relationship of the individual to society, rights, responsibilities and justice lies at the heart of the Core Curriculum. Whether through Contemporary Civilization or another Core course, our students explore the concept of civic and individual responsibility by engaging with faculty and one another to prepare for a life of citizenship. And that learning goes beyond the classroom: We want our community to “live the Core,” using these understandings to prepare for a life of emotional and intellectual integrity, of self-examination and of critical engagement with society at large.

For nearly 100 years, the Core has served as more than just the cornerstone of our undergraduate curriculum — it has given our students a foundation in how to become active citizens of the world. That will never change. In fact, one of our goals with Core to Commencement, the campaign we created to build the greatest undergraduate experience, is to secure this vital program, ensuring its longevity for many years to come.

We are evolving in other ways, too. The Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights, launched last fall, builds on knowledge from the Core and extends those themes into a contemporary context. This semester, Executive Director Bernard E. Harcourt, the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and professor of political science, is teaching a new capstone course, “Power, Rights, and Social Change: Advancing Justice,” as well as hosting a five-part series on the state of voting in the United States today.

The series, “The American Voter Project,” will bring together scholars, politicians, journalists, activists, artists, students and community members to discuss the pressing challenge of American voting, concluding with the panel “State of One Person One Vote.” The series includes discussions on the impact and future of the Electoral College, the problem of voter suppression, the 2020 Census and redistricting, and hacking digital elections. Discouraging retreat into what former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. ’73, LAW’76 calls “the quiet prejudice of inaction,” these programs create a deeper understanding about the power of ethics, morals, responsibility and honor.

Columbia College students are on a lifelong journey to embody these values, and while at the College they will gain knowledge, skills, abilities, perspectives and awareness to propel them forward. By the time they reach Commencement, and join you as alumni, they will be prepared for a life of citizenship — one that we hope builds a brighter future for everyone.

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James J. Valentini