The College’s Collective Inheritance

Valentini with students at an event celebrating his leadership on April 27.

Diane Bondareff

Dean James J. Valentini steps down on June 30 as dean and vice president for undergraduate education. The following is adapted from remarks he gave at a special gathering of alumni, faculty, students and staff, held on April 27 at Gotham Hall in Midtown. To read more about the dean’s decade-plus of leadership, visit

When I became interim dean in September 2011, the College was in a difficult state. It was clear that I needed right away to say something assertive, something that certified the centrality and value of the College to calm the fears, but also something that clearly positioned the College as part of the University. But it had to be something honest, something I truly felt, and not something simply reflective of the moment of crises. It was with that aim that I wrote “Welcome to the greatest college, in the greatest university, in the greatest city in the world.”

I did not anticipate that this three-part refrain would become so frequently repeated. But that repetition, which continues today, indicates how much that refrain was needed. We all want to feel we are part of a community, and a special community at that, and this refrain has given us a memorable way to identify our community and its specialness. That College community is one of many people, and those many people are our only resource. Every single person — every faculty member, every alum, every staff member, every student — should know that their individual value contributes to that greatness, and should feel that that contribution is understood and acknowledged.

We rely on a thousand faculty and a few hundred professional staff to execute our missions. Faculty create the academic direction, they do not follow it; and the staff deal every day with situations for which there can be no rigid standard operating procedure. And the many thousands of alumni volunteers who work with us in support of our missions are not employees to be assigned jobs. So, a good dean knows that leadership is only really possible by logical reasoning and emotional inspiration of those people, and that emotional inspiration must express recognition of the value of every individual.

To present that reasoning and provide that inspiration, the dean has a large audience with whom to communicate, and a platform and a microphone with which to be heard. But the audience is only attentive, the platform is only supportive, the microphone is only useful when there are ideas to express. Those ideas have to be clear, honestly presented, open for debate by all, and easily recognized as advancing the best interests of the faculty and students of the College. Most importantly, those ideas have to be seen as respecting people, recognizing their needs and acknowledging the value of their contributions.

Pretty much all my time as dean has been focused on formulating and developing such ideas. First came the ideas, then the opportunity to inspire others to join in the action to implement them and then the satisfaction of seeing these ideas realized because of the work of tens, sometimes hundreds, of people, all working together with a common purpose. That satisfaction has been great, greater than any other in my professional life.

Many students have asked me what I want my legacy to be. My answer is that my legacy is not for me to decide; rather my legacy lives within each of them, and in every other one who has been a student during my time as dean. What I mean by that is expressed in the funeral oration of Pericles that Thucydides records in the second book of the History of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles describes legacy as the “memory that remains eternal in men’s minds, which more than any monument will remain forever, always there on the right occasion to stir others to speech or to action.”

But there are more than memories. The many programs we have built and the many efforts we initiated — Core to Commencement, My Columbia College Journey, the Global Collaboratory, Live Well | Learn Well, the Odyssey Mentoring Program, the Holder Initiative, Undergraduate Entrepreneurship and many more are neither the monuments nor the memories to which Pericles refers. They are indeed part of my legacy, but more importantly, they are the inheritance of Columbia College faculty, students and alumni of the future. So, these things must be protected and extended into the future, not as an individual legacy but as that collective inheritance.

On June 30, Deantini vanishes to emerge once again the next day as Professor Valentini, but my experience as Deantini will remain forever as a greatly fulfilling and immensely rewarding part of my life. Thank you so much for the partnerships, collaborations and true friendships I have developed. I wish Columbia College and each of you individually great success in the years to come.

James J. Valentini