Email Us Contact CCT   Advertise with CCT! Advertise with CCT University University College Home College Alumni Home Alumni Home
Columbia College Today January 2003
Cover Story
College Launches
    E-Community for
Dean's Scholarship
Javier Loya '91:
    From Baker Field
    to the Houston

Vince Passaro '79
   Waxes Poetic
   About Life -
   And Columbia

Rupp Receives
   Hamilton Medal



Alumni Profiles





This Issue




Defining the Quintessential Great Urban University

During a three-day inaugural celebration October 3–5, 2002, Lee C. Bollinger was officially welcomed as Columbia’s 19th president. In this excerpt from his inaugural remarks, President Bollinger describes seven traits that help define Columbia as “the quintessential great urban university.”

Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of '41 by Michael Seidel

President Bollinger described his vision for Columbia's future in his inaugural address.
PHOTO: Eileen Barroso

As we inherit this absolutely extraordinary institution at the beginning of this new century, I want to set out some themes that I hope will be discussed and pursued as we chart our future together. It is, and has been for some years now, a glorious time for higher education in this country, and with any luck, it will be for the foreseeable future. What role will Columbia play in this era, and what do we need to do to enable that to happen? To answer that, we need to know who we are.

And my general answer is this: Columbia is the quintessential great urban university. Looked at from any perspective, it seems to me, this is the primary source of attributes, the defining personality, of this institution. We must embrace it. We must also understand it. Here are some of the things it means to me.

First: It is less possible and less desirable to remain apart, to be removed from the world around us. Accordingly, the task for us is how to engage with that world in a useful and productive way. We must serve society and the world while enhancing the academic character of the University and preserving its distinctive intellectual outlook. The range of visitors to this campus — to teach, to speak, to visit, to seek counsel and to offer advice — is simply unparalleled. The degree to which our students are beneficiaries of this access to the world beyond these buildings is self-evident. So is the degree to which our scholarship is positively affected by this augmented contact with real problems. And on the other side, Columbians are naturally called upon more frequently to serve, and they are ready to do so.

Exactly 100 years ago, Nicholas Murray Butler [Class of 1882] said precisely this, in his long-forgotten inaugural address, at the start of his astonishing 43-year tenure (a record I hope to exceed, if I can simply live to be 100). It is interesting to see Butler, one of the great figures of higher education in the 20th century (and a Nobel Prize winner), talk so comfortably and forthrightly about the importance of the University accepting the call for service to the world. My guess is that only a president of “Columbia University in the City of New York” (our official title) could say such things.

Here’s what he said about scholarship and service. President Butler first distinguished the scholar from the expert. Butler agreed with Aristotle that the “true scholar” is “free,” meaning in an intellectual sense. To be free, he said, is to have “a largeness of view ... which permits [one] to see the other side; a knowledge of the course of man’s intellectual history and its meaning; a grasp of principles and a standard for judging them; the power and habit of reflection firmly established; a fine feeling for moral and intellectual distinctions; and the kindliness of spirit and nobility of purpose which are the support of genuine character.”

“In these modern days,” Butler said in 1902, “the university is not apart from the activities of the world, but in them and of them. It deals with real problems, and it relates itself to life as it is.” In the combination [of scholarship and service], Butler found the “ethical quality which makes the University a real person, bound by its very nature to the service of others.” And so: “Every legitimate demand for guidance, for leadership, for expert knowledge, for trained skill, for personal service, it is the ... duty of the University to meet.” Butler made it clear that he disapproved of “academic aloofness.” He urged Columbia to recruit faculty and students “competent to be the intellectual and spiritual leaders of the nation and competent to train others for leadership.” “Great personalities,” he proclaimed, “make great universities.”

This 100-year-old vision can serve as a guide for us in this new century as well. Given this enhanced involvement with the outside world, which is part of the essence of Columbia’s role as the great urban university, it is crucial that we engage while retaining our distinctive academic character. In the real world, conflict and choices are always present, and that tends inevitably to affect how we think and discuss. It is harder to be intellectually “free,” to have that largeness of view that permits [one] to see the other side ... University engagement with the political sphere, therefore, must always be limited by the need to maintain that special intellectual angle of vision that, in the end, is what makes us of value to the society in the first place. And, for its part, when society invites our participation, it must be careful to resist the impulse it feels at times to crush that fragile intellectual spirit, for in any unrestrained battle, as Machiavelli said years ago, the state will win.

Second: Columbia, as the quintessential great urban university, is more international. I mean by this not only the presence in our university of individuals from outside the boundaries of the United States, which is significant. Columbia stands in the very top group of American universities in terms of the number of international students. (This is a longstanding Columbia policy: It was the first university in the United States to have more than 1,000 foreign students, in 1953.) Today, our students come from 145 nations, and a quarter of our faculty are foreign-born. Rather, by saying Columbia is more international, I mean something more than this; I mean international in perspective, in consciousness, in our interests and our engagements as students, teachers and scholars. In New York City, you cannot help but feel the presence of every part of the globe, and so it is at Columbia. I, therefore, believe that in every field represented at this university, there is more focus on world issues. And, so, deep down, Columbia possesses naturally the sense of itself as a citizen of the world. We engage with the world, not just out of a calculation of self-interest, but out of a sense of responsibility.

Third: Columbia is profoundly committed to the educational principle of diversity. Again, just as this city is the most diverse in the world, so is Columbia a highly diverse university. Among just a handful of American universities, Columbia has fiercely maintained over the years a commitment to devote its resources to a policy of need-blind admissions for undergraduates. Diversity, as well as educational opportunity, underlie this commitment. We all have much to learn about different cultures, about different ways of organizing societies, about how life experiences shape how one sees the world, about our perceptions (often inaccurate and oversimplified) of people of different cultures, societies, race and ethnicities. This is the true marketplace of ideas.

At home in this country, the work of integration begun by one of the greatest Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century — Brown v. Board of Education — is far from over, although much progress has been made. (Many Columbians were involved with Brown: Robert Carter, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, Jack Greenberg [’45], Otto Kleinberg, Constance Baker Motley and Jack Weinstein.) Over the past four decades, our American universities have done their part to fulfill the promise of Brown, by seeking the educational, intellectual and emotional benefits of diverse student populations. It would be an American tragedy if this progress were stalled by a reversal of Constitutional doctrine now nearly a half-century old, as determined opponents of affirmative action are at this moment trying to do. Very likely, the issue of the constitutionality of considering race and ethnicity as factors in admissions — the most important civil rights issue since Brown — will come before the Supreme Court this year. The outcome will have direct relevance to Columbia, as it will for all higher education.

Fourth: Columbia, as the quintessential great urban university, is — perhaps ironically — deeply committed to tradition. Here, I think of the great Core Curriculum, the longest running, most extensive core curriculum in the country. In the face of the swirling life surrounding us in this flourishing world city, it is not surprising that Columbia, as a university, would feel a greater need to hold onto what is precious from our history. And, yet, the greatness of this conservative impulse is not the wish to study Aristotle in isolation, but rather to immerse oneself in these great works while considering the great issues of our time — hence the title of the oldest Core course, “Contemporary Civilization.” (Lionel Trilling [’25] said of reading King Lear that to read this “dire report of life” is “invigorating” because it “does us the honor of supposing that we will make every possible effort of mind to withstand the force of its despair and to understand the complexity of what it tells us about the nature of human existence; it draws us into more activity than we’d thought ourselves capable of.”

Fifth: Columbia, as the quintessential great urban university, is — unexpectedly — the ultimate college town. One of the most surprising things about this university is the number of students, faculty and staff living within just a few blocks of where we are now gathered. Life here is exactly the opposite of what people commonly assume about a great university in a colossal city such as New York. It is like classical Athens, where citizens could throw on their tunics and walk to the forum and consider the world. The atmosphere is pervaded by thought and discussion; it is a community, not just a campus.

Sixth: Columbia is integrated into the fabric of the neighborhoods and the city. We share life with our neighbors, and we have great responsibility to them. For New York City, Columbia University is immensely important. The University brings in well over a billion dollars a year to the city economy, generating last year more than 10,000 jobs. Columbia is New York City’s largest academic research center, spending $418 million on research last year (27 percent of all academic research spending in New York City).

This carries over more immediately to Morningside Heights, Harlem and Washington Heights. We spend $42 million annually for goods and services from Upper Manhattan and South Bronx businesses, and we must continue to actively seek new ways to help the local economies.

But above all else, the University benefits enormously by living amidst such creative and resilient communities.

Seventh and last: Columbia, as the quintessential great urban university, is the most constrained for space. This is not even a close question. Indeed, if college and university rankings were based on creativity per square foot, Columbia would far surpass everyone. This state of affairs, however, cannot last. To fulfill our responsibilities and aspirations, Columbia must expand significantly over the next decade. Whether we expand on the property we already own on Morningside Heights, Manhattanville or Washington Heights, or whether we pursue a design of multiple campuses in the city, or beyond, is one of the most important questions we will face in the years ahead. As we enter these discussions, we will need to continue working collaboratively with the governor, the mayor and our neighboring communities and their leaders. We must be guided by a comprehensive vision for the University’s real needs.

Will Rogers said of Nicholas Murray Butler that he would never be satisfied with Columbia’s expansion until he had achieved the annexation of Grant’s Tomb. I hereby disclaim any such thought.

So, for those inclined, genetically or otherwise, to forget inaugural speeches, remember these traits of the quintessential great urban university: it is engaged, international, diverse, steeped in tradition, a college town, part of the city and neighborhood and desperately in need of space.

You may read President Bollinger’s inaugural address in its entirety at

Related Links


Lee Bollinger Inaugurated as 19th President of Columbia University [story & photos]
President Bollinger's inaugural address
President's Office Web site






This Issue



  Untitled Document
Search Columbia College Today
Need Help?

Columbia College Today Home
CCT Home

January 2003
This Issue

November 2002
Previous Issue

CCT Credits
CCT Masthead