The Key Role of the Columbia Faculty
By Brian Krisberg ’81
First Vice President,
Columbia College Alumni Association
Quietly and without much fanfare, the Columbia faculty has changed through the years. In fact, the phrase “Columbia faculty” has a different meaning to different generations of Columbia College alumni.
For alumni graduating through the 1960s, the “Columbia College faculty” as an autonomous body led by the dean of the College had meaning. Under this construct, the College faculty functioned as a unit, providing advice and guidance to College students beyond a faculty member’s specialty or department. For alumni graduating through the 1980s, while the “Columbia College faculty” existed in conjunction with other overlapping faculties for other Arts and Sciences divisions, such as General Studies (GS) or the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (GSAS) — indeed, a faculty member often was a member of three or four “faculties” — the notion of the “Columbia College faculty” as an independent unit was receding. Finally, for more recent alumni and today’s students, the “Columbia College faculty” is not a relevant or necessary structural distinction.
This four-decade-old transformation grew out of the professionalization of the departments at a research university such as Columbia. As part of this trend, the focus of the faculty shifted to a faculty member’s department, which had primary responsibility for hiring and reviewing performance, tenure decisions and salaries. This development created a major challenge. Specifically, in light of the increased emphasis on specialization and the greater power of the departments, how can a top-tier university such as Columbia continue to shape and maintain a serious general education curriculum for its undergraduates?
Given this reality, it is fair to ask, “What is the role of the Columbia faculty at the College today?” Clearly, to be a member of the Columbia faculty, one has to juggle many different constituencies (e.g., students from the College, GS, GSAS, etc.) and adopt multiple approaches to succeed. In this demanding environment, the Columbia faculty continues to play a meaningful role in the lives of today’s College students in at least five ways.
First is what one might call the conversion experience. Many Columbia faculty members, once they get into a College classroom and teach College students, are simply gratified by the experience. This sub-set of the larger University faculty, who come to Columbia with little prior connection to the College or who are recruited to teach College courses as graduate students, are converted by the experience and become firmly committed to teaching undergraduates.
Second is the faculty’s active role is shaping individual classes of students and academic policy at the College. Examples of this include the participation of the science faculty in the “Frontiers of Science” course in the Core Curriculum and the selection of the Rabi Scholars each year, the close relationship of the classics department to the Core and the meaningful oversight provided by the Committee on Instruction, led by Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis.
Third is the continuing commitment of the College and the Columbia faculty to the Core Curriculum. A prime example of the College’s commitment to the Core is the five-year Revolving Chairs Program that Dean Austin Quigley instituted, raised funds for and developed in recent years, under which faculty members sign on to Core teaching in exchange for stipends and other benefits. Further, the faculty demonstrates its commitment to the Core Curriculum each year through the preparatory work required, whereby individuals who have narrower training in their area of expertise broaden their focus and teach courses that span centuries of Western civilization.
Fourth is the environment of “partnering” that exists today between the University and College leadership. Since his arrival nearly 3½ years ago, President Lee C. Bollinger has made clear that a great University must have at its center a great college. Quigley, in his 11th year as our popular and energetic dean, is working closely and in a cooperative manner with Professor Nicholas Dirks, who became University Vice President for Arts and Sciences in 2004, in establishing the College’s academic priorities and presenting them to the central administration without the rancor and conflict that existed under prior administrations.
Fifth is the continued emergence of extraordinary professors who make a difference in the lives of so many undergraduates. During my years at Columbia, professors such as James P. Shenton ’49, Wallace Gray and Henry Graff stood out as role models who were incredibly devoted to the academic life of College students. Today, by way of example, professors such as Gareth Williams, the Violin Professor in the Humanities, chair of the classics department, chair of Literature Humanities and this year’s recipient of the Van Doren Teaching Award, and Robert Harrist, the Swerlgold Professor of Chinese Art, chair of the Art Humanities course and the newly appointed faculty-in-residence at East Campus, carry on this rich tradition. These individuals selflessly commit their time, intellect and energy to College students and are dedicated to ensuring that Columbia College offers the best possible undergraduate education.
Columbia, and my parents, taught me never to be satisfied. Thus, while clearly the relationship between College students and the Columbia faculty is flourishing, all members of the College community must remain vigilant about the issues and challenges that the College faces. These include class sizes in the Core, senior faculty participation in the Core and the quantity of students from other University divisions in College courses. At the same time, however, alumni of all generations should take pride in the quality of the Columbia faculty, in today’s College students and in the fact that while the Columbia faculty may look a little different from what it did in years past, it continues to play a key role in the lives of undergraduates.