Considering Our College Connectedness

The turnover of a year often inspires reflection on the year that’s just passed and on the possibilities of the year ahead.

Matthew Septimus

The turnover of a year often inspires reflection on the year that’s just passed and on the possibilities of the year ahead. There can be a tendency to think about oneself — how we want to improve, what goals we’ll set or how we might change our daily routines. These aspirations often become magnified when viewed through the lens of 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days. At 2020’s end, you might have found yourself thinking less about yourself and more about others, our interconnectedness having become more pronounced through the events of the year: a global pandemic, a surging protest movement in support of Black citizens, and a turbulent and divisive presidential election that revealed a fracture in our country and, therefore, in our collective future.

We have all been reminded that our individual fates are inextricably connected to those of our family members and loved ones, our neighbors and colleagues, and even strangers. The distinction of a Columbia College education is its ambition to teach students about the interconnectedness of human life and the common experiences we share. The Core Curriculum has long sought to investigate the enduring struggles, joys and concerns of humankind, and, more recently, the Global Columbia Collaboratory has brought together students and faculty from around the world to discuss and develop solutions for pressing global problems, from hunger to clean water.


The isolation that has defined our days since last March has had the disconcerting effect of separating us from one another in physical space, while reminding us of the value of human contact. I know I’m not alone in my longing to see students milling around College Walk; or to hear colleagues’ voices drifting down the hallway in Hamilton. The most difficult challenge I faced as dean this past year was having to implement policies and procedures that changed the very nature of how we — students, faculty, administrators, alumni and families — interact and relate. While some have adjusted well to the changes, others have found them difficult, and understandably so.

Many students have told us that their academic experience has been better than expected — we have our tremendously committed faculty to thank for that — but I also know that, because of the kinetic nature of learning and socialization, nothing can fully replace the in-person experience. As the frenzied first stages of the pandemic subside, the days of seeing one another again are slowly coming into focus, even though they are still many months away. With that picture in mind, I have begun to think about the lessons we’re learning from Covid-19 and how we’ll apply them so that we may reap some benefit from the struggles of this time.

• Though the pandemic descended upon us quickly and was unrelenting in its havoc, the College was more agile in its response than I thought possible. This exciting discovery informs future possibilities of what we can achieve when not under the duress of a pandemic.

• The Core Curriculum is the bedrock of the College’s identity and academic experience, and we must strengthen its purpose, inclusivity and impact in this time of turmoil and isolation. We’ve begun important work with a diverse, multi-generational committee of students and alumni who are charged with thinking about how the Core will evolve and continue to respond to the timeless challenges of human existence.

• While the richness of the College experience is most evident in face-to-face encounters, it’s become clear that technology can and should have a larger role in our academic experience. Finding ways to sustain technology’s unique benefits post-pandemic is an important opportunity for us.

The greatest lesson I’ve learned from the pandemic thus far has been the staggering commitment of our community. Faculty and staff have worked relentlessly to field the innumerable curveballs thrown our way during the rapid transition to remote life, learning and work. Students have shared with us the ways they have expanded their mindsets and resourcefulness to adapt as best they can to the demands of this time. These new and honed skills will benefit them for decades to come.

These months have not been without frustrations, though. This has been a trying time in all of our lives. But the resilience and fortitude shown by so many reminds me of something I often say: Columbia is defined by its people, and those people are its most important asset. There is imperfection in our humanity, but we share a commitment that is unlike any other I’ve experienced.

I wish you and your loved ones good health and much warmth in 2021.

James J. Valentini