The End of an Era


My first day of work at Columbia came less than two months after James J. Valentini was appointed interim dean in September 2011. At the time, I didn’t realize what it would mean to join the College at such a page-turning moment — that an institution such as this is far from static, and how a dean is not only entrusted with ensuring its continuance and well-being, but also is given an opportunity to set a direction and foster change in any number of ways.

I remember, early on, in a meeting with other teams that worked with alumni, that Dean Valentini redefined graduates as “former students” and prospectives as “future students.” The new vocabulary felt strange; wasn’t it just semantics? As a writer, I should have known better. Those words contained a powerful vision — of a unified and connected community, made up of people at all stages of their College experience — that under the dean’s leadership has been ushered from idea to reality. In retrospect, it was also evidence of his Beginner’s Mind at work, approaching the world as if seeing everything for the first time.

Of course, I have been thinking about these early impressions because the dean’s tenure is nearly at an end, bringing with it all the reflection such a moment requires. Dean Valentini will have been in his role for more than a decade when he steps down on June 30 — long enough to qualify as an era, and a transformational one at that. From the landmark fundraising of the Core to Commencement campaign, to the modernization of the Core Curriculum, to the changes in student culture engendered by My Columbia College Journey and Live Well | Learn Well, he has dramatically influenced every corner of College life.

I had the privilege of interviewing Dean Valentini for this issue’s cover story. Though I’d spoken with him over the years, it had always been brief; this would be something new (and thus a bit nerve-wracking). But there was no need for jitters. The dean was gracious and generous with his time, inviting me into his office on two occasions and staying open to my questions, wherever they took the conversation — from his upbringing in Lafferty, Ohio, to his life in college and early adulthood. He was modest, forthright and unerringly precise, often revising mid-sentence in the interest of absolute accuracy. I was moved that he shared so many vivid and personal recollections. And I am honored to share his story.

Elsewhere in the issue, we meet Shana Inofuentes ’00, the co-founder of The Quechua Project, who is harnessing the power of social media to help preserve Bolivia’s second-most common language. Here, she speaks powerfully about the dangers of Indigenous language erasure and her aim to empower and instill cultural pride in Quechua speakers — especially the younger generations. We also wish Low Library a very happy (125th!) birthday, with highlights from the Columbia University Archives and perspectives from alumni architects and historians on what makes it special.

I’d also urge you not to miss the Big Picture, where we introduce John Jay Hall’s avian residents, or our coverage of Class Day and Commencement. The joy at Columbia’s first in-person graduation ceremonies in three years was palpable, and we send all of our newest alumni best wishes for the chapters that lie ahead.

We send those same wishes to Dean Valentini: May you meet with sunny skies and an open road this summer; thank you for everything, and we’re happy to know we’ll be able to find you in Havemeyer again soon.

Alexis Boncy SOA’11