Choosing Community

This spring, Columbia College, Columbia Engineering and the School of General Studies will launch the Undergraduate Community Initiative to deepen students’ understanding of and commitment to the shared values of belonging, respect and service that support our campus community.

Diane Bondareff

As the events of this past fall unfolded, and with winter break offering a chance to reflect on a challenging time for Columbia College, a simple question with profound implications has often occupied my thoughts: “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

The title of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final book confronted readers with a stark question facing the nation in 1968, at the height of the modern civil rights movement. Though posed in reaction to circumstances and challenges of a different era, I have contemplated this choice not in a belief that history is repeating itself per se, but — to paraphrase Mark Twain — in recognition that, on our campus, it is certainly rhyming with previous seasons of conflict and unrest at Columbia.

For the College, there can, of course, be only one path forward. Yet choosing community is not a static choice; it requires ongoing commitment, dynamic adaptation and conviction. We must reassess and renew how we define the community we seek to sustain, and take active steps to realize it in the lived experience of our students.

Our mission, and indeed the ethos of the Core Curriculum, rests on the principle of free speech and expression, rejects uniformity of opinion and embraces difference. Ours is the challenge of parsing and sitting with conflicting viewpoints and philosophies. This may seem like a recipe for disorder, but as I have said many times in recent months, what we do remains a radical proposition.

Alongside our affirmation of diversity of ideas and experience is our parallel fidelity to providing students with the tools to explore those differences in spaces where deep listening, respectful debate and social engagement are celebrated. These practices are the essence of the community we choose to enrich and propagate at Columbia.

Ours will never be a campus where like-minded individuals conform to any single ideology. Nor is it a community where a common socioeconomic or cultural heritage provides uniformity of experience. To forge a shared language in such an environment, we must listen carefully to one another, and make a good faith effort to hear divergent viewpoints with an open mind. No student should feel that their voice is without value, that difficult questions cannot be asked or that they must stifle expression in the face of intimidation or harassment.

Conversely, in times of conflict and quiet alike, we must be mindful that our words and actions land in the context of a richly diverse social world. Our language fosters community building and social change even as it also discomforts and disrupts. Ascertaining the most generative discourse, comprehending its effects and creating the critical space to understand the asymmetric conditions in which our words take on meaning are equally important tasks. Indeed, a tension between understanding the world as it is, and our differing hopes for what our world could be, sits at the heart of the learning community we inhabit and maintain.

To all of these ends, in the Spring semester, the College — alongside Columbia Engineering and the School of General Studies, and with other University partners — will launch the Undergraduate Community Initiative. The initiative will focus on deepening students’ understanding of and commitment to the values of belonging, respect and service.

These values are not only ideals to aspire to; they also reflect choices, behaviors and habits of mind that must be cultivated and reaffirmed continually. Together they can contribute to a campus environment that is respectful, empathetic and open to a plurality of perspectives even as it affirms free speech, an independence of mind and a diversity of political visions.

Moreover, this initiative aims to bring together theory and practice through a robust notion of service; namely, the recognition that the pursuit of knowledge and justice takes shape within the context of our mutual responsibility to and for one another and to the world around us.

In these and all issues, the voices of alumni continue to be a source of great strength, and I encourage you to remain engaged in the life of the College. I will share more about the Undergraduate Community Initiative in the months ahead, and I look forward to welcoming you back to campus Thursday, May 30–Saturday, June 1, for Columbia Reunion 2024, as our remarkable alumni renew their own commitments to one another and to the Columbia College community.

With respect,

Josef Sorett
Dean of Columbia College and the Henry L. and Lucy G. Moses Professor; Vice President for Undergraduate Education; Professor of Religion and African American & African Diaspora Studies