October 31, 2007
Lee Bollinger

Ipek Cem recently interviewed Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University. They covered a wide range of issues, including new trends in higher education, Columbia's expansion into Manhattanville and the Ahmedinejad controversy.

Ipek Cem: My guest today is President Bollinger of Columbia University. Welcome to Global Leaders.


Lee Bollinger: Thank you very much.


Ipek Cem: Columbia, my Alma Mater, is a University very much rooted in the history of New York. It was founded in 1754, and it also has over 260,000 alumns. What kind of power does this give Columbia, as an educational institution?


Lee Bollinger: Well, I think the power comes from two sources. I think it comes first of all from the extraordinary research that goes on at the institution. Enormously important things have been discovered at Columbia. But it also has to do with the extraordinary quality of the students, and what they go on to do in life. And we think that... we hope that we've given them a great training that they can then go on and serve the world in ways that their talents permit them. So, it's an extraordinary institution, I think one of the best in the world. I'm certainly proud of it, and we're certainly proud to have you as one of our alumns.


Ipek Cem: Basically we are living in the age of globalisation, and I know that the Columbia student body is very diverse. Actually more and more foreign students are coming to Columbia. How is this diversity affecting your curriculum?


Lee Bollinger: Well, as you say, among all the universities in the United States we actually have the second absolute largest number of international students. And we're hoping to expand that, especially at the undergraduate level. If you want to be in an environment where you are surrounded by people from every part of the world, different races, religions, different political perspectives, you just can't do better than Columbia. And the same is true of New York City, which, of course, is part of the great benefit of Columbia, and I think the benefits of this are many. But one is that, as the world becomes more interconnected, and all of us have to interact across cultures, across nations, I mean the economic advances are bringing this about very quickly. You really need to understand, in a very "lived" way, experiential way, what that is like, and this kind of internationalism at Columbia is just a place where you can learn that in your very young years, and then live it for the rest of your life.


Ipek Cem: Columbia is known to have a lot of Nobel Prize winners, professors and other walks of life. How does an institution like Columbia maintain its magnetism, for talent like this? Both in terms of academics, and in terms of students. Is it a matter of money? Is it a matter who you have to begin with?


Lee Bollinger: Well of course this is something I focus on every single day: how to make sure that the great talent of the world can be attracted to Columbia. And I think the answer is first of all, culture. It has a long tradition of being very dedicated to ideas, and to research. Great people around. It's a community that shares these values, and so when you enter, it's not just as an individual, as a great person, or a person who wants to be great, it's part of a community where there are already great people and that tends to attract great people. I think the second thing is that we really provide an environment, that we protect people in their pursuits of study or research. And we really very strongly value the rights of Faculty, and students to generate their ideas and to do what they can for the world. And I think the third thing, which is implicit in what you asked is: do we have to pay large sums of money to attract people? And it is more and more competitive in the United States for great talent, and the salaries are going up and up. So this is... this is... I don't want to hide that fact from us. But actually the differential between people who are Nobel Prize winners and "regular" people in the institution is not as great as you might think. And I think that has a lot to do, again, with the culture of the place.


Ipek Cem: You just mentioned giving professors and faculty freedom, and one of the recent events that took place was the invitation by some faculty of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, and this evoked a lot of controversy. How did this work out? Could it have been better if he was not invited at all? Should he have been given a podium to speak?


Lee Bollinger: I think that it's extremely important for faculty and for schools, Deans of schools, to be able to invite people for discussion about issues and for academic purposes. In this case it was the Dean of the School of International affairs, and a Faculty member, who wanted to extend this invitation and I fully supported it. When you do have a evenning like this it can be very controversial. It's very important that issues be addressed, and be serious.... because we take ideas seriously. We really want to understand countries of the world, we want to understand Turkey, but we want to understand Iran. I mean, this is, I mean, global affairs today, the fate of the world seems to be often said to rest with what happens in Iran. We have a number of plans to try to understand the society better. Some immensely gifted and wonderful culture, and people, and civilisation, and so this was just one part of that general effort to try to understand Iran, and to understand the world. So I'm very supportive of very robust debate, and very, very strong value of taking ideas seriously and quite proud of how the University conducted this, and benefited from it. You may remember, may know, that there were thousands of students who were watching this, as well as other people, and I've received countless emails from students saying this was one of the most important educational events of their time at Columbia.


Ipek Cem: When you found yourself in the middle of this controversy, do you think it's also a sign of the times, because there is great polarisation in the world, and people have a lot of preconceived ideas about what they consider to be the other: whether it is Iran, or Iraq, or a country that they don't fully know or understand. How is this polarised world affecting the students at Columbia University, and your curriculum?


Lee Bollinger: Right. Well, I think we do... I think you're right. I think we do live in a time where there is a sense of polarisation about ideas. Even fundamental ideas... which makes universities all the more important, I think, as places to be able to discuss these things. And, my own goal is to try to make free speech, and academic freedom, as strong and vital as possible at Columbia. I know other presidents of universities across the United States feel the same way. And it's a struggle, I mean you just have to make sure that we stay committed to wide open debate about major issues. We have to do it in an academic way. We don't do foreign policy, and we're not diplomats, but we do very much want to understand the world... and there are just so many wonderful things about what can happen in the world, and we want to be as integrated an institution and a part of trying to make that happen.


Ipek Cem: In the recent years, Orhan Pamuk, who is the Nobel Prize winner author from Turkey, has been closely associated with Columbia University. Does this free speech angle have something to do with it? Knowing that he has been criticised sometimes for his views?


Lee Bollinger: Orhan Pamuk has become part of the Columbia Faculty and I'm very proud of that. This is a man of enormous talent, and accomplishment, who will do many great things, and of course has received widespread recognition. There is often the case that people who say things, and participate in major issues are strongly criticised, but that at the end of the day can't be the standard we use for whether someone is part of the academic community.. It has to be the quality of their work, and the quality of their mind. Really capable of reaching great heights., and in the case of Orhan Pamuk, there is no question that this is a person of just incredible talent. We're very proud to have him part of Columbia.


Ipek Cem: We are now sitting in Paris, and there is an exciting event going on, which is the Columbia Alumni Association is hosting a conference in Paris on globalisation, and other issues. What do you think are some of the important ideas that will be explored?


Lee Bollinger: Right. So this is this is a European reunion of our Alumni. We also have, as you just indicated, panels, and speeches, and discussions about globalisation and the University. My own view is that we are in a new era, in which markets, business especially, are transforming the way the world is. It's just incredible what's happening in China, in India, in Turkey, in Africa. These are changes of a magnitude that we have not seen for, at least in my lifetime. These raise thousands of important issues. How are we going to create this new "global society"? Universities must be part of those conversations, and yet we're not as fully involved with those issues as we should be. So we have to figure out ways that we can get out students and our faculty out into the world, to be able to know what are the issues that we can address more effectively than we are now. And we're trying to get more students from abroad, send our students abroad, more than they do now, and in different kinds of settings from study abroad programmes. We're trying to engage in research projects all over the world. Our Earth Institute with Jeffrey Sachs, very engaged with issues such as extreme poverty. Joe Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner is very much involved in world affairs and trying to think about global economic and social development. Jagdish Bhagwati, a member of the Economics Department, highly distinguished, very, very significant on these issues of international trade. We have issues of people in the School of Public Health who are helping with maternal mortality questions, or AIDS prevention and treatment. We have the School of International Affairs, of course, which is the centre piece of our efforts to try to deal with global issues. The Law School has a centre on Chinese Studies, Legal Studies. If you go across the whole institution, there are enormous talent and commitment in trying to help in building a better global society. It's a new day. We really have to engage more with the world, and we have to figure out more how to do that better than we are doing it right now.


Ipek Cem: You mentioned right now the Earth Institute, and the work of Jeffrey Sachs, and I know that this is one of the most prominent and engaging programmes available. Recently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, made a donation of 15 million dollars, which was in the public eye. And this.... The Earth Institute, it has very high aims: eliminating poverty and disease. And this will also be, an important part of your Manhattanville project, I think, if I am not mistaken.


Lee Bollinger: Yes.


Ipek Cem: What are some of the topics that are being engaged right now at Earth Institute?


Lee Bollinger: At the Earth Institute we have, through Jeff Sachs, and his colleagues, many projects underway. But the ones that are probably the most famous, well known right now are a series of villages throughout countries in Africa where new methods of agriculture, new methods of treatment of disease, work on educational development, are being deployed in city, or in villages, of some 50,000 people per village, to see whether with a certain amount of money – let's say, I think it's around 70 dollars per person, per year – it can be shown that the millennium development goals that the...


Ipek Cem: United Nations...


Lee Bollinger: ... that the United Nations adopted in 2000 – 2001... whether those goals really can be met by these methods. So it's one effort... it's a really wonderful example of what a university can do to help us understand what can be done, or should be done in order to improve the world. There are other projects that we have, for example a major effort to try to help, throughout Africa, although there are other countries involved in these efforts as well, to try to help in AIDS treatment. But it goes on and on. You mentioned a moment ago Manhattanville, which is a new campus we're hoping to build in West Harlem...


Ipek Cem: I was going to come to that.


Lee Bollinger: Yes. It's 17 acres and will yield 6 million square feet of available space, and will be the first new campus of Columbia in 100 years if it goes through. Right now it's in a city process. We're very hopeful. But it will allow us to devote a lot of new space to thinking about issues of global society. And we're very hopeful that this will happen, and that we'll be able to expand our efforts in that regard.


Ipek Cem: At what stage is that project, because I know that there is some controversy over it. It's such a big and ambitious project that it will have some impact on the people living there.


Lee Bollinger: Yes.


Ipek Cem: And even though I know Columbia is trying to also contribute to the residents, at what stage would you say it is?


Lee Bollinger: It's in a re-zoning process in the city, and we're about half way through. In fact, two days ago we had a public news event in which the Manhattan Borough President and he announced, and I supported it, obviously, that he was endorsing the project and at that moment, the Mayor, who was Mayor Bloomberg, who also had endorsed the project some months ago expressed very strong support for Columbia's expansion. Other people have as well. Congressman Rangel, who of course is the famous congressional representative from Harlem has endorsed the project and Governor Spitzer, and others. We still have to go to the City Planning Commission and to the City Council for approval. If we do, we will then be able to build this new campus over the next 30 years. It will have a Mind-Brain Behaviour Institute which will work on issues of Neurology, and neurological investigations, and that will be led by our Nobel prize winners, Eric Kandel and Richard Axel, and another very distinguished scientist. The Business School plans to move there, and the School of the Arts. We're also, as I said a moment ago, to bring a lot of work on global society there. It will have a transformative effect for Columbia, and for the world. For the surrounding communities in Harlem we're really trying to do as much as we can as institution. We have agreed to do a new high school, a public high school with the City. We are agreeing to do affordable housing so that people who may be... not displaced, but maybe their rents may go up and they feel that they can't live there, we want to make sure they can continue to do so. The project will create 6000 new jobs over time. We want to make sure that a lot of these are reserved for people from the area. There are many things that we can do, and are doing to help.


Ipek Cem: Has all of the land been purchased or allocated?


Lee Bollinger: Very close to all of it. There are just a few remaining pieces of property.


Ipek Cem: When I was a young graduate student at Columbia, my parents were often worried that I was going to school in the middle of Harlem, but I see how that area has transformed, so this would have a similar effect on some of the higher streets. What do you think?


Lee Bollinger: 30 years ago... and I'm not saying that's when you went to Columbia 40 years ago. It was a very troubled, the city was very troubled, and it was really quite dangerous in the areas north, in northern Manhattan, and, in the past ten, twenty years an enormous amount has been done to help improve the lives of every body. Of course that improves things like crime. Believe it or not, the area is now the fifth safest precinct in the entire city. So it's a very safe area, and we think this will also contribute to the well-being of the entire area of the city, as well as on issues like crime.


Ipek Cem: You are also one of the foremost experts in the US, a legal expert on free speech and First Amendment issues, and right now, the US is perceived globally because you are leading a US university, you are also having a US brand and globally the US is sometimes met with caution. Is this affecting your recruitment, globally?


Lee Bollinger: Of students, and Faculty?


Ipek Cem: Of students and Faculty.


Lee Bollinger: I don't believe it has adversely affected our recruitment of students. This has been a debate in the United States for the past couple of years, that is: are we at risk of losing the attractiveness to students abroad to come and study in the United States. This would be a terrible thing if people did not think of the United States as a beacon of education, or certainly a place that they would be welcomed and we would want them to come to. It would be a real disaster for us, and I think for the world. An enormous amount has been done across the higher education world in the United States to help with recruiting students and making that process as painless and as easy as possible, in the face of reasonable security concerns that have come up over the past number of years. If you look at the numbers of foreign students studying in the United States, usually around 600,000 students from abroad come to study. For a while after September 11th there was a decline in the increase of that. It's back to normal levels at this point. We don't know now whether some students now feel uncomfortable in the United States, or think they will, or they prefer to go elsewhere who would have gone to the United States before. We are trying to do everything we can to... to make sure that doesn't happen. For Columbia, and New York City, because it's such a diverse and huge place with all kinds of people, I think we've had less difficulty with that than some other institutions. I can say, at Columbia, I notice no difference. I think we're getting as good, or better students as we've ever got.


Ipek Cem: There has been the sense among people of the Islamic faith, and perhaps this has nothing to do with a university's policies, but simple issues like granting visas, and I have even heard of cases, which are completely legitimate cases of a student coming back to school and having difficulty obtaining papers - even though they had the papers – so these kind of stories, they go back to the local people and they create a kind of a stir.


Lee Bollinger: Yes.


Ipek Cem: Do you feel that there is caution after September 11th towards people who are different?


Lee Bollinger: Let me just say at the beginning, I think it would be a tragedy if people of Islamic faith felt that the United States was a place where they would feel uncomfortable, or not fully respected. It would just be terrible. We should want more of this integration rather than less, and so I want to make sure that I say that. So, is it their problem now? I think the answer is, we would have to say "Yes". I mean we really have a lot to overcome here, of a sense of some alienation. And... and we, of course, at Columbia are trying to do our small part in helping that. But this is a bigger problem, as you say, across many countries and societies throughout the world. So my hope is that people of Islamic faith, students or Faculty, would know that they would just be entirely welcome, along with everyone else who is part.... accepted to become part of our community.


Ipek Cem: There are many famous names who have graduated from Columbia University like the names that come to my mind Madeleine Albright, Alan Greenspan, Barack Obama. Do they keep in touch with the school?


Lee Bollinger: Yes. In different degrees, and different periods of their lives, and yes it is a very loyal alumni group. I think people feel that the education that they got a Columbia was instrumental in affecting their lives. People who graduate from the college of course did the core curriculum, which is a very intense, two year process of studying classics, and many other things. But it's a very, very in depth educational experience, and it shapes people for the rest of their lives. But that's also true in the Medical School, and it's true in the Law School, in CIPA, and so on. So the bond with the institution is very strong.


Ipek Cem: I want to just come to the higher education and graduate schools in the US, and how they are run, and how they are funded, as opposed to more the European model and then there are specific models around the world. Do you see... because the US education system is really based upon funding by graduates and this giving an endowment and going on. Is this model being repeated elsewhere, or...?


Lee Bollinger: Elsewhere around the world?


Ipek Cem: Yes.


Lee Bollinger: Well, let me say, first of all, that the higher education model, as I frequently call it, is a dual system. It's largely public universities which are funded by tax-payer money through States. And then there's a significant private university presence. But I would bet 70% of the students really go to public universities. Private universities have been extraordinarily lucky, and benefited from the remarkable generosity of alumns. So they have built up, over time, endowments that are very substantial. They also benefit from Federal funding for research on... mostly on science and... what we call "life sciences". So this is a very, very successful model. Public universities, private universities, different types of funding sources: really been very successful. My sense, around the world, is that more and more societies are moving towards this kind of system of alumni, non-governmental support for universities, out of a recognition, I think, that one of the best investments you can make in the future of your country is in the quality of higher education that you have. And to do that, you have to have the resources, and so as we move into this more inter-connected global society, I expect to see more and more universities in other countries adopting this kind of model of private support. Even for public institutions.


Ipek Cem: You have been at Columbia since 2002, and before that you held a similar post at the University of Michigan. Are you planning a long career, because you also have another career in law.


Lee Bollinger: No, I plan to stay at Columbia, and do this for many years to come.


Ipek Cem: On that note I want to thank you very much for your time.


Lee Bollinger: Thank you. It's a pleasure. Thanks so much.


This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, NTV networks and Ipek Cem cannot vouch for its accuracy.