Letter from President Lee C. Bollinger, Announcing the Columbia Committee on Global Thought

December 14, 2005

To the Columbia Community:

I am writing to announce a significant step in our general efforts to enhance the University’s engagement with issues of globalization – namely, the creation of the Columbia Committee on Global Thought. University Professor of Economics Joe Stiglitz has agreed to lead the Committee, and the other founding members of the Committee will be:

  • Akeel Bilgrami, Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy and Director, Heyman Center for the Humanities;
  • Partha Chatterjee, Professor of Anthropology;
  • Michael Doyle, Harold Brown Professor of U.S. Foreign and Security Policy and Professor of Law, Political Science, and International Affairs;
  • Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History and Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures; and
  • Katharina Pistor, Professor of Law.

Other members of our faculties will undoubtedly join this effort over time. In order to understand the initial mission of the Committee, I need to take a step back and explain how we got to this point.

The forces affecting societies around the world and creating a global community are powerful and novel. The spread of global market systems, the rise of (and resistance to) various forms of democracy, the emergence of extraordinary opportunities for increased communication and of an increasingly global culture, and the actions of governments and nongovernmental organizations are all reshaping our world and our sense of responsibility for it and, in the process, raising profound questions. These questions call for the kinds of analyses and understandings that academic institutions are uniquely capable of providing. Too many policy failures are fundamentally failures of knowledge, and knowledge is what universities are designed to offer.

Of course, in countless ways – indeed, so countless that we do not fully comprehend them – Columbia is already involved in addressing many of these global issues. It is part of Columbia’s history, its nature, and its comparative advantage to be so involved. And, yet, I also think there is a generally shared sense that we can and should do substantially more than we are doing right now. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are entering an era that will be defined by a significant increase in the degree to which collectively we take the events and concerns of the world as the subject matter of our intellectual focus and the world population as the pool from which we create our academic community.

It is also the case that a great university develops methods of modifying or compensating for the limitations of its inherited and chosen structures and of evolving successfully to an ever-changing world. Establishing interdisciplinary connections has been a theme of the last few decades, and it is commonly heard that many of today’s problems fall increasingly in the spaces between our disciplines, rather than squarely within the disciplines themselves. The subject matter of academic inquiry should always be under discussion and is always shifting, just as in the quarter century after the Second World War it realigned with an altered external landscape (regional studies, civil rights, environment, etc.) and just as in the last quarter century it has gravitated towards ideas more internally generated within the academy (deconstruction and post-modernism, for example). Academic attention is always some balance of immediate and practical problems defined by the external society and more removed problems defined by intellectual life itself.

With this in mind, about two years ago, we formed the Task Force on the University and Globalization, which I chaired. Its membership was large and drew faculty from across the University. We met numerous times and discussed a variety of aspects of the University’s involvement with international matters. We learned about projects and relationships abroad, about departmental and school visions of future engagements, about the inclusion of international students especially at the undergraduate level, about the opportunities we offer or might provide for our students to study and learn outside the United States, and about the nature and direction of our academic interests as they relate to the phenomena of globalization. For me personally, and I hope for others, the Task Force was an illuminating experience.

These topics, then, were discussed and debated by the Task Force over many meetings and over many months. One result (and there will be others) is the idea of the Committee on Global Thought that I am announcing today, a faculty committee created to carry forward the process of consultation with faculty and students in order to build a world-class program for the study of globalization. The Committee should identify the initiatives, programs, and courses that we already have that are related to globalization, propose new curricular and research initiatives that will integrate global issues more effectively into the academic life of the University, and suggest institutional structures to sustain the effort.

The Committee is, therefore, meant to provide an institutional vehicle for rethinking the ways in which the University confronts challenges stemming from globalization. While it is intended to organize a series of discussions, workshops, and seminars on what it might mean to engage fundamental questions from a global perspective, it will also develop proposals for a host of other initiatives, collaborations, and engagements with ongoing activities at Columbia, in the Arts and Sciences, and in the professional schools. This is a seed project that, given our location in a university, could lead to curricular innovation and reform, even as it will help us re-conceive, and find new ways to support, the project of making Columbia University a genuinely global university in the century ahead.

I look forward, along with Provost Alan Brinkley, to convening the Committee on Global Thought at the beginning of the next semester. We will be working closely with senior academic leadership in the University to coordinate its institutional recommendations.


Lee C. Bollinger