Columbia has for years been one of the leading academic centers for the study of the world; it is home to a number of regional institutes, focusing on East Asia, South Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe; Western Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. The institutes emerged as centers of area studies in the Cold War aftermath of World War II, funded in part by federal grants and major initiatives on the part of foundations, such as Ford. Columbia fostered its institutes, established new departments and programs, and took on a leadership role in global studies over the last half century. The School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), which began as a school based in the work of the regional institutes more than sixty years ago, has now become one of the most exciting and innovative centers for research in international affairs, recently becoming an independent school. Columbia’s students have access to faculty members who possesses an enormous range and depth of knowledge about the world. Today, the University has resources for the study of most major world regions that are an important basis for our national and international reputation.
We might ask, however, what it means for Columbia to become a genuinely global university, rather than simply one with excellent academic resources for studying the world. Globalization implies not just an increased velocity and scale, but a re-centering of the globe, as it were. We know from recent scholarship and from our own experience that globalization — despite the necessary recognition that it has pervaded world history for centuries — is new in a number of respects. We know most about the economic effects of contemporary globalization, and if there are disagreements among scholars about the social as well as political and environmental effects of the world economy, there is broad agreement about the contours and significance of the phenomena themselves.
We are only beginning to understand the ways in which globalization is a profoundly cultural phenomenon as well: Ideas, fashions, attitudes, desires, languages, the arts, religion, and even politics circulate along with the commodities that no longer know national boundaries, or a world divided into different zones of wealth and power. At the same time, these international divisions have hardly disappeared: If anything, they appear all the more stark, especially because of the expansion of media and communications that makes differences more visible and more immediate. On the one hand, the United States is increasingly international in its social and economic constitution; Europe is fast dissolving most of its internal boundaries and becoming a different kind of world power; China is on the verge of a new level of global economic influence; and India is at the center of the information technology revolution. And yet vast sections of the world, most of them in the Southern Hemisphere, are in many ways more disadvantaged than ever before.
Globalization may be an obvious, if ambivalent, reality, but the irony is that it is deeply controversial. The utopian character of globalization depends on the demise of political aspirations on the part of any single government for world domination, even as it requires collective participation in a variety of international institutions, agreements, and legal organizations. The university is in some ways the most international, and the best positioned, institution to promote genuine globalization. And yet, it is still not clear what it would mean to call for a new kind of engagement with the idea of a global university. Universities in the West need to come to grips with what it would mean not just for “us” to study “them,” but for developing new forms of knowledge, and new institutional structures, that will facilitate understanding of and participation in a world that is far more interdependent than ever before.
In some cases, globalization calls into question the very definitions and professional character of the core disciplines that make up the university. The core disciplines continue much as they were when first invented in the late nineteenth century; and university curricula have changed far less than the world itself, despite the developments within area studies, which in any case have come under attack for provincializing rather than globalizing knowledge. There are many challenges that confront us as we seek to re-imagine the idea of a global university. Even as we rethink the organization and character of the disciplines in a newly global age, we have to recognize the limits inherent in the structures of the university itself. For example, as we recruit more international faculty and students, we will have to take into account global differences in academic training and organization. We will have to reconsider our fundamental notions of reputation, training, evaluation, and professional field. And we may have to establish new structures for making appointments, organizing curricula, and advising students for life after the university. All this could be very exciting, but it is often easier for universities to study change than to undergo it.
And yet, where else but Columbia are we so well equipped not just to study the world but to change it, and then to change ourselves concurrently? New York City is the global city par excellence, and with Columbia’s unique reserves of strength and excellence in global studies, we are well positioned to provide new models not just for how we study the world but also for what it will mean to think about the global university in the new century ahead.
To facilitate all of these aims, we have begun to develop new initiatives as well as continue our support for existing programs. We have been playing a central role in the launching of the Committee on Global Thought, established by President Lee C. Bollinger in 2005, in order to create a new space for the re-imagination and consolidation of global studies across the University. SIPA, now one of the world’s most global public policy schools, provides its students with the skills and knowledge to pursue distinguished careers in government, business, and media, as well as nonprofit, non-governmental, and international organizations, offering programs in International Affairs, Public Administration, Economic Policy Management, Environmental Science and Policy, and Sustainable Development. We have just completed a review of the regional institutes and are in the process of considering various recommendations for strengthening their collaboration with each other and their role in the Arts and Sciences at large. The Institute for Research on Women and Gender has been developing plans to coordinate new kinds of global programs. The Institute for Comparative Literature and Society has worked to build a global perspective into the heart of humanistic teaching and research. We have been working to build some of the regional studies departments, such as Spanish and Portuguese, French, Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, and East Asian Languages and Cultures, to expand the interdisciplinary as well as comparative reach and sophistication of global studies within the Arts and Sciences. And we are currently evaluating both the undergraduate curriculum and the opportunities for our students to study abroad as part of Columbia’s goal to internationalize our campus and engage scholars, students and institutions in creating a deeper understanding of our globally interdependent and culturally diverse world. The Office of Global Programs aims to ensure international opportunities for undergraduate students that combine cultural immersion, intellectual challenge, and individual growth through expanding their worldview. Equally important is the aim to provide a comparable experience to international exchange students coming to Columbia.
At the heart of Columbia’s global strategy are the Columbia Global Centers: a network of eight global centers located in Amman, Beijing, Istanbul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Santiago. As envisioned by Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger and the University’s leadership, the centers are designed to function as nimble hubs providing a foundation for students, faculty, affiliates, and alumni to explore the most important global issues from a truly global perspective. Unencumbered by the rigid structure imposed by a branch campus, the centers allow the University to enrich the diversity of the academic experience in a flexible and organic manner, while maintaining strong connections with Columbia’s home campuses in New York City. The commitment to a distinctive, networked structure allows faculty and students to leverage research disciplines across the world and across the academic spectrum.
The global centers are about so much more than having a presence throughout the world. They are about connecting the local with the global, finding scholars with shared interests around the world, and engaging others in global conversations. They are transforming Columbia into a global university for the 21st century, one offering an ever-expanding number of opportunities for our faculty and our students to conduct their research and focus their learning wherever their intellectual interests take them.
The inauguration of the Columbia Global Centers, combined with a wide range of initiatives from a broad array of Columbia schools and programs, represents the next stage in Columbia’s evolution.
With all of this extraordinary accomplishment, this is just the beginning. The only thing we can say for sure is that Columbia will continue to be a model of and for innovation and experimentation as we work to provide the most stimulating environment possible for engaging our students and faculty with the rapidly changing world in which we live.