Choosing Community

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Dean Josef Sorett shared the following message with Columbia College students at the opening of the 2024 Spring term.

Dear Columbia College Students,

Welcome back to campus after what I hope was a relaxing and restorative winter break. As you settle back into life on campus, I’d like to share a few thoughts with you about the shared work of sustaining our community.

While reflecting on the events of this past Fall over winter break, a simple question with profound implications has often occupied my thoughts: “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

The title of Dr. 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. However, in choosing community we must continually reassess and renew how we define the community we seek to sustain — and take active steps to realize those commitments.

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 you — our 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.

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 language can foster community building and social change even as it also discomforts and disrupts. Navigating that 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, this Spring, the College — alongside Columbia Engineering and the School of General Studies, and with other University partners — will launch an Undergraduate Community Initiative focused on deepening our collective understanding of and commitment to the values of belonging, respect and service.

It is in that spirit that I am excited to invite you to a new event, Choosing Community: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., on the evening of January 25 in Roone Arledge Auditorium. The program will honor Dr. King’s legacy through selected readings by students, faculty and alumni, with musical performances and more.

As we kick off this season of renewal, I hope you will join me in re-committing yourselves to our shared enterprise. I look forward to seeing you around campus and at community events in the weeks and months ahead.

Wishing you all the best for this Spring.


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