Cover Story
Dean Austin Quigley:
Constructing a Coordinated
Living & Learning

Austin Quigley has been a forceful and eleoquent advocate for the College in his 3 1/2 years as dean.

 A ustin E. Quigley, an authority on Harold Pinter and modern drama who was chairman of the English department at the University of Virginia before coming to Columbia in 1990 to direct the University’s expanding programs in theater arts, succeeded Steven Marcus ’48 on July 1, 1995 as the 14th Dean of Columbia College. As he approaches the completion of his fourth year in 208 Hamilton Hall, the 55-year-old Quigley, whose speech retains the border accents of his Northumbrian roots in the north of England, reflected on what has been a tumultuous tenure as dean. During this time, the College’s reputation has reached new heights nationally and internationally, as reflected by soaring increases in the rate of student applications and selectivity, record levels of fundraising, and the vitality of a Core Curriculum dating back to 1919. But all has not gone smoothly; differences with President George Rupp and others in the University’s administration led to a hectic period during the summer of 1997 in which Dean Quigley’s resignation was requested, accepted and rescinded all within the span of a week.

The interview with Dean Quigley was conducted by CCT Editor Alex Sachare ’71 and is being presented in Q&A format, in two parts. In the first part, Dean Quigley discusses some of his accomplishments and some continuing challenges, as well as his overall perspective on the role of the dean—the big picture. In the second part, which will be presented in the May 1999 issue of CCT, he answers questions about specific issues that have come to the fore during his time as dean.

You are now in your fourth year as Dean of the College. What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment in this period?

I’d respond like any good academician, by rephrasing the question slightly to say, what did I think coming in the door was the most important thing I would have to do? I felt the College needed renewed leadership and a clearer sense of direction that would establish for everyone involved a reasonably coherent picture of what the whole educational enterprise is about. From that overall picture a structure could be derived that liberates the creative energies of everybody involved in the College. What was needed initially was not so much a detailed picture defining at the micro level how everything works, but a macro picture of how everything at its best hangs together. If you begin by focusing primarily on the micro level you can end up, as so many academic administrators do these days, believing that better management alone constitutes better leadership. And what usually follows from that is not only inadequate leadership but also poor management.

"Our campus is much smaller than those of our peer institutions and we have little capacity to expand."

An illuminating large picture involves trying to define what an undergraduate college is these days, who the prime participants are and what their major responsibilities and opportunities are. This is by no means simple. When you are dealing with a very, very old College that goes back to 1754, you must remind people that they play a role in a large historical enterprise that existed long before we arrived and will continue long after we have gone. We have to meet our obligations to the past, as well as those to the present and future, and that broadens the picture considerably, even in terms of who “we” are.

The nature of a college community thus has a historical dimension. While current students are our immediate concern, they are students for only a few years, and their enduring role in the College community is to be former students, a role that they will play for the rest of their lives, and one that we must continue to help them define. It’s very important that we think of the College community as consisting of people across several generations. Parents, alumni, staff, faculty and students all play their part in a large historical College enterprise that is constantly unfolding, and constantly requiring inter-generational interaction.

One aspect of big picture thinking is thus to conceive of Columbia College as an inter-generational community. The phrase captures amongst other things my general sense of what an undergraduate college is about, and I’m speaking not just of this College but of colleges across the nation. Institutions of higher learning exist because of the sense of responsibility that each generation feels for the generation that comes along behind it. Without that, there would be no undergraduate education. So the inter-generational theme clarifies the college enterprise in a variety of ways, in terms of our collective responsibilities to the past and the future, in terms of the relationships between older and younger people currently in residence, in terms of the mutual obligations of students and parents, and in terms of the relationship between students and alumni and the relationships between faculty, graduate instructors and undergraduates.

The inter-generational theme also clarifies the role of the Core Curriculum in which large areas of historical material are explored by a new generation of students reading the same books together with the help of faculty from the generations before theirs. In our Core Curriculum we study the past not in order to simply recover and repeat the past but to discover how best to relate ourselves to it and it to us. We go back and explore the past by asking questions of it, and by learning how to ask better questions by means of it. This is very much how these traditions themselves developed, with later voices questioning, querying and challenging the earlier voices. A tradition lives in its renewal, extension and evolution, rather than in simply being repeated. In fact, a tradition that just gets repeated is in a sense not alive because it’s not evolving. So the inter-generational theme also indicates how we see the knowledge of the past being related to the students in the College right now and to those who will succeed them in the future.

Contemporary Civilization, when it was first set up, was very much set up in those terms. Early descriptions emphasized the importance of dialogue going on between those voicing the insistent problems of the present and those registering the persisting views of the past. It’s a dialogue that becomes more fully alive if we think of it as an inter-generational exchange from the outset that continues to extend into the future. A paradigm case might well be Aristotle disagreeing with Plato. That doesn’t mean he ignores Plato, it means he listens to what Plato says and disagrees, and the disagreement makes sense because he partly agrees. And then you can think of all these traditions that we explore as consisting of voices competing and conversing with each other across time. The role of the current generation is to learn how to engage in those conversations and then to continue them by adding their voices of the present. It is only in these terms that you can understand how tradition can be both an instrument of continuity and an engine of change, and why such tradition must be explored in a small seminars format. In that context, historical awareness, wide-ranging exploration, collaborative inquiry, and independent thinking become interrelated concerns. So the inter-generational theme cuts across a variety of different levels and it’s in that sense that I’ve tried to build a big picture around that theme and then managerially played out its consequences at every level of College administration and education.

Quigley chats with students outside Hamilton Hall. PHOTO: Rene Rerez

Quigley shares a laugh with Roone Arledge '52 and Diane Sawyer at the 1998 Hamilton Dinner. PHOTO: Joe Pineiro

On the flip side, what has been your biggest disappointment, your greatest persisting challenge?

There are some intractable problems here that limit what can be done in the short term, and to some extent the long term, too. A key problem is having a campus that is so constrained in terms of space. Our campus is much smaller than those of our peer institutions and we have little capacity to expand, so the space constraints for almost everything we do are very real and not easily fixable. We also inherited a situation where our endowment per student is lower than the endowment per student of the institutions with which we directly compete in the Ivy League. This is particularly the case with Harvard and Princeton, and it constantly challenges us to do more with less, and that, of course, is not always achievable.

"A life you can look back on with some pride involves more than career success."

Those are probably the two resource constraints that are of most concern, but there is one other that is really tricky to deal with, and it is the focus of a great many questions addressed to me in alumni gatherings. It is a structural problem that I always emphasize exists in most universities. That is how you relate centralized administration of the university, which is in its own way essential, to the principles of decentralization, where you hope the individual schools will take on greater responsibility for their own budgets and greater authority, as a consequence, over their own educational enterprises. Balancing these competing goals is a problem as alive and real here at Columbia as it is at any university. But in this case it’s complicated somewhat by the particular construction of Arts and Sciences, which suggests what should be central and what should be delegated to the schools. And it’s not as if any of us currently holding positions of responsibility constructed this model for ourselves. We all have to work within an inherited structure that has its own rationale. Arts and Sciences needs to have centralized decision-making, particularly in the hiring of faculty, which often requires speedy decisions (usually done better by one person than by committee) and a clear and single sense of what hiring and budgetary priorities should be. But the needs of the several schools in Arts and Sciences are not always in phase with each other. You’ve got to figure out how the goal of centralizing what can be centralized in order to produce
efficiency and clarity can best be reconciled with the importance of having priorities generated by the schools, which have direct responsibilities to students, parents, and alumni. That’s not an easy balance to achieve.

"We encourage students to think for themselves, but also to learn to do so in the company of each other."

There are two key manifestations of this in Arts and Sciences that are difficult for everybody to manage. If you divide, as we have, the responsibility for the curriculum, which stays in the schools, from the responsibility for hiring faculty, which is done centrally, then you’ve got a rather complicated distribution of responsibilities where an inter-school faculty and a school-specific curriculum don’t sit so easily together as they would in a situation where the faculty were all assigned to only one school. So the separation of administrative responsibility for faculty affairs from administrative responsibility for the curriculum is a tricky one for all of us to handle. Furthermore, if you have an inter-school faculty, it isn’t an automatic thing for the faculty to feel immediate responsibility for any particular set of students. In another kind of institution where there is one faculty for one school’s students, it’s much easier for the faculty to feel a direct linkage to those students, alumni, and parents, to the school’s specific curriculum, and to what goes on beyond the curriculum in the social life of students. It’s much easier for faculty to feel an ownership of that whole complex if they only have responsibility for teaching students of one school. When you have an inter-school faculty, things get rather complicated. I know, as a faculty member myself, dealing with College students, General Studies students, Engineering students, Barnard students, graduate students—it’s all pretty much seamless in terms of classroom activities, but it’s less seamless when you move beyond the classroom to debates about the curriculum and to participation in the residential life of students or in the worlds of parents or alumni. That doesn’t mean good things are not achievable with an inter-school faculty, but it provides a set of challenges that still need some work.

And one other source of challenge is the tendency of more than half of our students to major in only five of the 50-plus majors available to them. That produces some crowded classrooms for our students and some under-utilized resources elsewhere, and there is no easy remedy for the problems that ensue.

In light of what went on 18 months ago, when your resignation was announced and then rescinded within one week, I would be remiss not to ask: How are you and President Rupp getting along these days?

I say one thing to people in this regard and it always seems to strike them as a surprise, and I can perhaps see why. But I start from here: I’ve had opportunities to serve as a dean before, not at this institution but elsewhere, and I turned those opportunities down. I very much like being a faculty member, I love being in the classroom, I enjoy my research and I love the ideas it generates. I hadn’t really planned to take on a dean’s role, but there were two things that affected my decision to take this one. First, having been here for four years and having gotten to know Columbia College extremely well, I really felt that this was a very special opportunity, an opportunity to make an important contribution to a college of major national and historical consequence, and to a generation of remarkable young people currently studying here.

The other major factor was George Rupp. It’s very important if you’re going to invest the energy, the effort, the ideas and the hours that being dean requires, that you have considerable respect and admiration for the person who is president of the university, for his values, and for his ability to get things done. So George Rupp was in fact a key factor in my decision both to take this job and to continue in it. He and I have always had a good personal relationship. I think we would both say that at the time when we had our greatest difficulty 18 months ago, our conversations were always civil, and we both respected the different positions we were articulating. Since that point, I think our relationship has continued to get better as we have come to understand each other better and as we have worked our way beyond that particular set of issues. I’ve always had enormous respect and admiration for George Rupp, not least because of his remarkable ability to manage and move forward an institution as complicated as Columbia. And, of course, he has continued to live up to the commitment he articulated at the outset of his presidency, to improve undergraduate education.

Quigley wants College students to be explorers
PHOTO: Philippe Cheng

Quigley enjoys Homecoming with wife Patricia, who teaches English and Theater at Barnard, and daughters Caroline (left) and Catherine. PHOTO: Joe Pineiro

How would you describe today’s College students, and how would you characterize your responsibility toward them?

In one sense they are quite like their immediate predecessors and in another quite different. We continue to attract a large proportion of students who are from the outset independent thinkers and who come here for an education that will make them even more independent than when they arrived. It is our responsibility to help them achieve that, and our unique curriculum ensures that they do.

Today’s students tend to be more career-oriented than the generation I grew up in, but it’s a mistake to think that because they are somewhat more career-concerned than my generation, this eliminates their sense of social responsibility and their concern for people in the world who have fewer advantages than they have. In terms of their sense of belonging to a nation to which they want to make a contribution, in terms of their readiness to participate in outreach programs in this neighborhood—hundreds do so every semester, as you know—I don’t find them any different from the students in the ’60s. What has changed is how they envisage achieving the goal of having a life that adds up to something more than a successful career. They do, of course, want to have successful careers and they study very hard to make that possible, but they also understand that a life you can look back on with some pride involves more than career success, that it involves contributing to society in some larger way. The difference between this generation and the generation in which I grew up in the ’60s is that we then collectively (and naively, it appears in retrospect) believed in a top-down solution to social issues. If we had the right president in office and the right members of Congress and the right laws and the right leadership, then everything would filter down to the bottom and produce a better world. The Great Society programs are obviously a fine example of how we envisaged that government sponsored process of social change. The big difference for today’s students is that that process no longer has their confidence. The expectation that government or law will suffice to promote a harmonious blending of the social fabric has ebbed away.

But that doesn’t mean today’s students have stopped believing in a better American society or a better world or that they have ceased wishing to participate in bringing it about. They are, however, likely to regard social change as emerging from the bottom-up rather than the top-down, and that’s one of the reasons you have these large numbers participating in community action programs in this neighborhood. I think that’s a key difference. So also is an uncertainty about the very nature of an ideal society. They are all well-educated enough to know what they wish to be “free from,” but less sure about the generalisable result of being “free to” do what they wish. They feel the pressure, nevertheless, to stand “for” something, but in a non-coercive way. As Robert Kennedy was fond of remarking, “Each generation inherits a world it didn’t make, but each generation must nevertheless render its own accounting to its children.” In their own way they expect that of themselves, but also of us. In sustaining the highest quality of undergraduate education at Columbia we meet part of our obligation to them. And to the extent the future of this College and this nation lies in the hands of the young people at Columbia today, it lies in very good hands, indeed.

How would you describe Columbia to a prospective student? What, in your opinion, makes this place unique?

It’s important that our students acquire in their education not just modes of expertise that will promote a particular career, but also a capacity, in a rapidly changing world, to adapt such modes of expertise to new sets of circumstances. They also need to acquire new forms of expertise during a lifetime of learning. The curriculum really has to function in such a way as to promote all of those things. Our Core Curriculum, which cuts across departmental boundaries, is not restricted to the truisms of any period in the past, but is really a repository of ideas and a source of questions that transcend the boundaries of any discipline, any department, and any historical era. It characterizes a Columbia College education by inviting students to think across established modes of disciplinary discourse, to make the unexpected connection, to ask the unexpected question, in short, to think for themselves. This involves thinking across frames of reference and not just within inherited frames of reference. But that’s not an either/or. It’s very important that students do learn to think within specific frames of reference, because the whole idea of having a major and working in a discipline lies in the fact that you achieve disciplined thinking by working in some depth in a fairly narrow area. The important thing is to establish a back and forth relationship between the very disciplined thinking at a local level that goes on within a particular major, and the creative, improvisational thinking required to straddle various frames of reference in the Core. I think the Core Curriculum and the majors, together, provide a kind of educational experience that we understand and articulate as well as any educational institution in the country. And that’s a consequence of having both an excellent faculty and a tradition of excellent teaching which has left an enduring mark on our curriculum. To say we’re not primarily career-oriented in our education, however, doesn’t mean we’re career-blind. We try to balance the two by providing career education across all four years rather than simply job placement in the senior year. Students are encouraged to do a lot of different kinds of learning together, including thinking about the relationship between curricular choices and career choices.

Indeed, one of the key resources we offer prospective students, in light of the soaring admissions applications that have in six years risen from 6,000 to 12,000 a year, is a student body whose quality has risen very rapidly. Our fastest growing educational resource is, in a sense, what these immensely talented students can learn from each other. This is why the diversity of the student body—not just racial and ethnic diversity, vital though that is, but also diversity conceived more generally in terms of talents, personalities, backgrounds, and experience—is so important. This diversity brings with it a multifaceted set of resources that help students figure out how to think across frames of reference, how to deal with contrasting pre-suppositions, how to reconcile competing values and principles. The same thing would hold for the benefits of an education in New York City. It provides another huge range of resources that make clear how central it is to a College education to acquire an ability to explore different resources in different ways. One of the advantages, for example, of coming to a large research university as a member of a small college is that you encounter this vast array of 50-some majors, 30-some concentrations, and hundreds of electives. So when students come here, we want to encourage them to think of themselves as explorers with all these resources at their disposal. The better they get to know the resources provided by their fellow students, by the faculty, by the staff, by the departments, by the city, by the alumni, by the library, by whatever’s online, the better off they are, both while they are here and after they graduate. We encourage students to think for themselves, but also to learn to do so in the company of each other so that they acquire here the capacity to go on learning, listening, adapting, and innovating for the rest of their lives. But they will probably never again be surrounded by such a comprehensive set of learning opportunities that link the social dimension of their lives to their academic and intellectual interests, to their personal concerns, and to their career options.

What we have tried to do in the years I’ve been here is to link all of those resources—in the classrooms, the residence halls, the renovated library, the new student center, the Alumni Partnership Program, the Career Services Center, the athletic fields, the local neighborhood, and the city. Producing a coordinated living and learning environment is a goal that I’ve been articulating since the day I became dean. What goes on in the co-curricular dimension of students’ lives, in residence halls and recreational spaces, is every bit as important to their learning experience as what goes on in the classroom. But just as important is how we link those two things together. I’ve spent three years working with College staff on what the residential dimension of the students’ experience should be, on understanding why we should have a library that’s also a social center, and a student center that’s also an educational place. Columbia College has a distinctive educational experience to offer as a residential Ivy League college in a research university in an international and cosmopolitan city, and it is distinctive in the range of resources it provides, in the links provided between them, and in the educational principles exemplified in those linkages and in our curriculum.

You mentioned the residential dimension. Among the many changes at Columbia over the past generation or two is that it is now almost fully a residential college, rather than having a significant percentage of commuters. How has that changed the nature of the College?

Radically. You always have to recognize that you’re here temporarily as dean. What you have to do is take what you inherit from the efforts of your predecessors and move the enterprise forward. You can’t come in here with entirely new notions of what Columbia College ought to be which you then try to impose on an institution with its own history and its own immanent trajectory. It’s very important to grasp both the distant history and the recent history before trying to guide things to wherever you think they ought to go. You have to take advantage of whatever’s already in the pipeline and whatever can be added to carry things forward. It’s not unlike the Core Curriculum, in which we try to make ourselves informed about history in such a way that it guides rather than governs the way we move forward.

It’s important to remember that the upgrading of our residence halls evolved pretty much in tandem with the process of making the College co-educational in the 1980s. It was a big change from having a large commuter population, whose very existence indicated that while students would receive an excellent classroom education and all the opportunities of New York City, the residential environment was not seen as central to the educational experience. The residence halls were places to put your head at night, but not places where any organized form of education took place, or where young men and women would live and learn together. Now we have a tremendous amount of social programming to bring students together to pool the educational resources provided by their different genders, diverse talents, differing backgrounds, and disparate experiences. The upgrading of the residential environment has not just been a simple matter of increasing the number of beds and improving the quality of the rooms. It has involved a massive rethinking of how we link that co-curricular dimension of the students’ education to the curricular dimension, and how we connect the social dimension of the students’ experience on campus with the social dimension of their experience in the city. Some recent initiatives include the Passport New York program, the Alumni Partnership Program and faculty/student excursions into the city in, for example, some of our music humanities and art humanities classes. Enriching the students’ co-curricular experience by having the social dimension of the College and the social dimension of the city connected in some productive way is very important to us. So making Columbia College fully residential has changed its character significantly by offering new opportunities whose full exploitation still lies ahead.

Bear in mind that while a lot of things are coming to culmination simultaneously here and the College is consequently looking very impressive on the national scene, I’ve had the privilege of inheriting some initiatives that have been in the works for a decade or so and of taking them the last few steps. In trying to figure out where the College is now and why it is as popular as it is now, remember that as far back as the early 1980s people were planning to make the College fully residential and coeducational, and deciding what kind of investments that would require over a period of years, particularly in terms of new and renovated facilities and upgraded services. People like (University Provost) Jonathan Cole ’64 and (Director of Alumni Programs and former Dean of Students) Roger Lehecka ’67 have been involved in this for a very long time, as have several deans of the College before me, and many members of the faculty, the alumni association, and the Board of Visitors all have played very important roles in moving the project forward. A lot of things, of course, began to coalesce when George Rupp came in and said we need to put the College at the center of the institution and that if this kind of research university is to be viable going forward, it really needs to take very good care of its undergraduate College. So much that’s coming to culmination now has a trajectory that goes back 15 or 20 years. But it is also important to recognize what a remarkably talented staff the College has right now and how successfully they are seizing the opportunities to make a college education in this new environment the best that it can possibly be. I doubt that the College has ever had such an impressive array of administrators as those it currently employs.

What in your opinion makes this place unique? Why should John or Jane Doe go to Columbia?

I’ve touched on much of that earlier, but I’ll just check some things off as reminders:

•A small College within a research university committed to undergraduate education.

•An excellent faculty, providing a very wide range of curricular offerings.

•A unique curriculum, not just the fact that we have the Core and a large number of majors, but also a special relationship between the Core and the majors and a special relationship between education in the classrooms, in the residence halls, and in the city.

•The inexhaustible resources of New York City and the special linkages I’ve described between the College, its alumni, and the city.

•The diversity of the student body, of which racial and ethnic diversity is an important part. Everyone who understands the role of college communities in creating the social fabric of the future understands the importance to us of having the largest proportion of Students of Color in the Ivy League. But this is only one aspect of student diversity writ large. This institution has not been, at least not in its recent history, an institution for some small subset of the population. Our need-blind admissions and full-need financial aid policies are evidence that the door has been open to students across much of the socio-economic spectrum for generations now. The College has a tradition of attracting first-generation college students, the first in their families to go to college. And because New York is an international city with international visibility, we’ve always had a component of international students. So the diversity of the student body is very important both in providing and in facilitating the exploration of social and educational resources. It is in this larger sense that we speak of the importance of students learning while here how to use diversity as a social and educational resource.

•A College tradition that has gone along with the Core, although it also preceded the Core, is one of producing independent thinkers with collective concerns, people who are prepared to take on the responsibility of leadership in American society. If you review some of our John Jay or Hamilton award winners in recent years you get some sense of the remarkable range of very prominent people who have graduated from this College. That’s a long tradition and one which continues to thrive. And it is currently being fueled by an increasingly unusual institutional commitment to the notion that the requirement of core courses and the production of independent thinkers are complementary rather than contrasting concerns. Free choice in curricular matters is a good principle, but one that must be reconciled with enabling students to make informed choices.

•The quality of the young people attending Columbia College is very impressive. It would be a privilege for any young person to study with them, and it is a daily privilege for me to serve as their dean.