Low Library is “A Black Box” – CU Professor JervisPosted: April 13, 2012
(And for more history and context on who rules Columbia and the secrecy of Low, check out “Who Rules Columbia” the 1968 pamphlet by student strikers: http://www.utwatch.org/archives/whorulescolumbia.html)
The Black Box
what’s happening inside low library
Nobody wants to talk about Michele Moody-Adams. “What exactly the inside story is there, we’re never going to know. I think that’s so old by now, and it’s almost irrelevant,” Christia Mercer, chair of Literature Humanities, says of the former dean’s abrupt resignation. “What’s relevant is that we get it right going ahead.” Moody-Adams’ departure last August, coming on the heels of Claude Steele’s resignation as University provost over the summer, fixed a spotlight on the problems facing both Columbia College and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The incident raised questions about the transparency of the senior administration, the place of the college within the University, and the role of the faculty in high-level decision making. But most of all, it seemed to resonate with a set of deeper concerns: If the dean felt powerless, then who holds the reins of power at Columbia? How do the many distinct voices and interests of a diverse institution come together to decide policy? How are the limited resources of a prestigious university distributed, and in whose office is the pie divided? “It’s hard not to see the problems,” says James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature. “And it’s even harder to see solutions.”
Ultimately, the story of Arts and Sciences, Columbia College, and the larger University begins well before Moody-Adams’ arrival on campus and remains unfinished to this day. Piecing it all together means understanding the fluid relationship between administrators, faculty, and businessmen; examining a previously unpublished report from McKinsey & Company; and analyzing a brand new structure for Arts and Sciences that may change everything.
The McKinsey Report
In 2009, Michele Moody-Adams was the first woman and the first African-American to be appointed dean of Columbia College. Formerly the vice provost for undergraduate education at Cornell, she was the first dean of the college to come from outside the University in over 30 years.
Her tenure came to an unexpected end last August when she announced her plans to resign in an email she sent to a small group of alumni. In this email, she said she would be resigning in June 2012 because of concerns that upcoming changes to the administrative structure of Arts and Sciences would “have the effect of diminishing and in some important instances eliminating the authority of the Dean of the College over crucial policy, fund-raising and budgetary matters.” The private email was leaked to both Spectator and Bwog and was soon followed by a message from University President Lee Bollinger announcing Moody-Adams’ immediate departure. (Moody-Adams did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Three days after Moody-Adams’ resignation letter was leaked, Spectator published reports that her decision stemmed from behind-the-scenes tensions concerning a study, conducted by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, that suggested ways to streamline the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. (The Faculty of Arts and Sciences is an administrative structure that includes five constituent schools—Columbia College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Continuing Education, the School of the Arts, and General Studies—and the 29 academic departments associated with them.) The contents of the report, which has never been formally released, quickly became the subject of widespread speculation. A summary of the document, obtained for this story, sheds some light on the specific proposals that may have prompted Moody-Adams’ concerns.
The summary outlines three potential new structures for the Arts and Sciences, corresponding to low, moderate, and high degrees of reorganization. “Type 1” maintains the existing structure but adds a chief of staff for the executive vice president and establishes an “Operating Committee” for the Arts and Sciences to decide “cross-cutting A&S issues (e.g., financial aid and admissions policies).” The members of the Operating Committee are not specified, but the report suggests that it include school deans or new divisional deans for the sciences, humanities, and social sciences.
“Type 2” relies more heavily on the proposed divisional deans. It calls for a chief of staff but also suggests the creation of “functional heads,” such as a chief financial officer or a head of human resources, who would set policy across the Arts and Sciences. The summary acknowledges that convincing the constituent schools to turn over authority to the functional heads “likely requires Central University mandate.”
The most extensive proposal, “Type 3,” integrates the leadership of Arts and Sciences into the central University. It suggests establishing the provost, or a leader directly under his aegis, as the key administrator for the arts and sciences. In this centralized setup, the individual deans and department chairs would directly report to one powerful overseer.
All three strategies seek to narrow the responsibilities of the individual schools’ deans. The summary explains that “school deans [will] have approval rights over matters that require local attention,” such as residential life, study abroad, student activities, and the “care and feeding” of undergraduates. In contrast, control of key areas—including the hiring of new faculty, creation of new programs, fundraising goals, and faculty salaries—would be transferred to divisional deans or the executive vice president for Arts and Sciences.
None of the proposed restructuring plans presented to Moody-Adams actually came into effect. If they had, few matters of broad academic or financial significance would have been in the hands of the dean, lending credibility to Moody-Adams’ concerns. A reorganization of Arts and Sciences is under way—but first, some history.
Low as a Black Box
Shapiro, who graduated from the college in 1977, has taught at Columbia for nearly 30 years. His office, 606b Philosophy Hall, has a beautiful view of Low Library, but he says he has little idea of what goes on inside. “It’s not that I haven’t been here long enough or that my ears aren’t open or I’m not curious about how things work,” he says. Faculty members say they are often left out of the decision-making process until very late in the game, if they are brought in at all. Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson professor in the political science department, characterizes Low as “a black box.”
The deep uncertainties around the workings of Low Library are often centered on one administrator in particular: Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin. Kasdin, described by many as Bollinger’s right-hand man, previously served under him at the University of Michigan, where he was executive vice president and chief financial officer when Bollinger was president.
After Bollinger, Kasdin and the provost are the University’s two most senior administrators. While Kasdin formally oversees all nonacademic operations, his control over University finances and facilities necessitates an involvement in academic decisions, nominally the domain of the provost. Kasdin is in charge of Environmental Stewardship, University Facilities, the Office of Finance, Columbia Technology Ventures, and Student and Administrative Services. But his influence is much broader. Jervis points out that things like improvements to the University IT system are both academic and administrative in nature.
“Almost any academic ambitions the University has need money and space,” says John Coatsworth, who was made the permanent provost of the University in February. This means that the provost must work very closely with Kasdin. If the office of the provost appears weak, whether because of the man in the office or because of the office itself, then Kasdin appears all the more powerful. (Through a spokesman, Kasdin declined a request to be interviewed for this story.)
“A lot of people think that Robert Kasdin runs the show,” Mercer says. “Robert Kasdin claims he doesn’t. As to what’s true and what’s not, I don’t know what’s true and what’s not, and I’m also surely not going to offer an explanation.” Mercer is far from the only one who does not know. Interview requests for this story, sent to over a dozen senior professors across Arts and Sciences, were mostly turned down on the basis that the academics in question had never met Kasdin.
How Many Slices?
The lack of transparency makes it difficult for anyone outside the senior administration to get a handle on University budgeting. In the current financial climate, many faculty members are worried that the speed of big projects like the Manhattanville campus are costing Columbia too much in other areas. “[There is a] real trade-off between the present and the future. Without Manhattanville, there is no future,” Jervis says. However, “if you divert too much money into it, you’re going to harm the institution as it is. We do worry that Lee weighs the future more than we would.”
“Columbia University can’t pay for everything it would like to do either,” Andrew Delbanco, Mendelson Family Professor of American Studies, said in a speech last October. “It can’t support a competitively compensated teaching faculty, provide generous financial aid to undergraduates and graduates alike, build a grand new campus, at least not quickly, and meet the huge deferred maintenance needs of the existing campus.”
Shapiro likened the University’s current financial situation to a pie: The senior administration continues to slice big pieces to feed the insatiable appetite of Manhattanville, leaving smaller and smaller slivers for things like faculty benefits.
But it’s impossible to deny that space is a crucial issue for the University. With classroom space running short, the master class schedule was recently expanded to allow for more instruction time. “I spend an inordinate amount of my time trying to figure out where to put new faculty and how to house programs … but our space simply doesn’t expand at the rate that we would like it to,” says Nicholas Dirks, executive vice president for Arts and Sciences and dean of the faculty, arguing that Manhattanville is a necessity for the University to continue functioning, let alone grow. “We try to do a lot more than we probably should try to do at the same time because needs are great and aspirations are great.”
But what concerns the faculty most is not what they know about the Manhattanville project, but what they don’t know. “I don’t know who has a foot on the accelerator of Manhattanville, or the brake,” Shapiro says. “And I don’t know enough about the division of that pie to know whether things are being done in a wise way or not because that conversation is not one that I am brought into.”
The budgeting process as a whole is a mystery not only to the faculty but even to senior members of the administration. “It’s a very opaque process,” Jervis says. “If you ask the vice provost or the deans about how that process worked, they couldn’t tell you.”
“I can’t say that I know exactly how it happens now, even,” says James Valentini, interim dean of Columbia College and vice president for undergraduate education. “The provost may know, but I’m not sure anyone else knows fully exactly how that happens.” Valentini was appointed to the deanship last September.
The Incredible Shrinking Provost
Since both the business and the academic goals of the University require money, the visions of the provost and the senior executive vice president can run up against each other. This makes a strong provost even more crucial to the academic health of the institution. “It surely is true that we need to have a strong, smart provost who is up on the current situation of the faculty and students,” Mercer says.
Jonathan Cole, who was provost nearly a decade ago, is likely the last provost who fit that description. “I was probably the strongest provost they’d had in decades,” Cole says. Cole, who first came to Columbia in 1964, was a professor of sociology for 14 years and vice president for Arts and Sciences for two years before he served his 14-year tenure as provost.
“I ran the entire inside of the University,” Cole says. “The president ran the outside. That changes depending on who the president is.” And it did change when Lee Bollinger came from Michigan to replace George Rupp as University president. Shortly after Bollinger’s appointment in 2002, Cole was succeeded by American historian Alan Brinkley as provost. Brinkley, who did not respond to a request for an interview, had been at Columbia for just over a decade before assuming the position and has been described as a relatively weak provost.
Brinkley stepped down in 2009 and was replaced by Claude Steele, a professor of psychology from Stanford University and, like Moody-Adams, an outsider. Steele was the first provost to be brought in from the outside in over 50 years.
Ultimately, he only served for two years before returning to California to head Stanford’s School of Education.
During the nine years of Brinkley’s and Steele’s tenures, the powers of the provost seem to have shrunk. According to a senior University official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his position, Bollinger was aware of the shift and expanded Steele’s staff with the purpose of putting him on an equal footing with Kasdin. But Steele was still unable to match up. “When you don’t have a strong provost, then you have something like the current regime with Kasdin,” the senior University official says. “If you had Cole as provost, rest assured, the authority would be with Cole.”
The ambiguities in budgeting and administrative authority have left many in the Columbia community uncertain over the future of Arts and Sciences within the University. “In the ’70s, the Arts and Sciences were more muscular than they are today and had a greater say in Low, certainly, but that’s no longer the case,” Shapiro says. “When you come from, as Bollinger does, a professional school perspective, it’s very different than somebody who came from the Arts and Sciences who inhabits that office.” Even before the events of last August, the health of Arts and Sciences had inspired faculty protest. All University employees contribute a portion of their salary to the “fringe pool,” which pays for their benefits, such as health care, tuition assistance, and retirement plans. The pool has lost tens of millions of dollars in recent years, and a committee co-chaired by Steele and Kasdin was tasked with eliminating that deficit. In April 2011, the committee recommended that fringe benefits be significantly cut back for faculty.
While many of the proposed changes had grandfather clauses attached so that they would not affect current professors, numerous faculty nevertheless spoke out against the plan. “If they start decreasing our benefits, making it more difficult to get housing and so on, we are not going to be able to retain or recruit the best faculty,” Mercer says.
Arts and Sciences recruitment would have been especially affected by the proposed change because their relatively lower salaries cause them to rely more on the benefits. Thus, Arts and Sciences faculty were the most vocal opponents of the plan. The issue ultimately came to a head in a faculty meeting, at which Bollinger fielded questions about the new plan for the better part of an hour. Faculty agree that the degree of unhappiness demonstrated at the meeting came as a surprise to the administration.
While the proposed cuts were ultimately scaled back, the flare-up pointed to a larger problem with spending priorities. Especially in an era of trimmed budgets, members of the Columbia community question whether the University has been trying to do too much. “Columbia College is suffering because funds that might go to its support are being diverted to support this white whale that is Manhattanville,” the senior official says, in that decisions like expanded enrollment are “totally budget driven by Kasdin and by Bollinger.” Mercer agrees, “I do think that Columbia University does not have enough money and we have to select what we’re going to spend our money on. We have to prioritize, as people use that word.”
New Structures for Arts and Sciences
The controversy, together with Moody-Adams’ resignation last summer, sparked a discussion about structural reforms in Arts and Sciences. “There was, over a period of several months, a consideration by senior administrators and trustees in the university about what was the best organization of what is a pretty complicated unit of the university, with lots of different kinds of students and different missions,” Valentini says. At a faculty meeting last week, Dirks unveiled a set of administrative changes intended to reshape the relationship of the Arts and Sciences schools, including the college and GSAS, to their collective faculty.
The most prominent new structure is an executive committee for Arts and Sciences, composed of Dirks, Valentini, and GSAS Dean Carlos Alonso. The committee, which had its first meeting last Friday, is charged with directing the academic and financial activities of Arts and Sciences. Valentini says the committee will address “all major decisions about major budgetary items, allocation of school budgets, allocation of faculty lines, any major decision that affects the operation of the schools, the students in the schools, and the faculty who teach in those schools.” While Dirks has the final say on issues that divide the triumvirate, the Provost will be notified of decisions that are not supported by all three members.
University leaders frame the new system in terms of the stature of the college dean. “The hope is that … this new structure will raise the status and decision-making authority of the dean of the college in ways that will be productive both for the Arts and Sciences as a whole and for the college,” Coatsworth says. For example, the committee will exercise joint authority over fundraising goals so that the fundraising operations of the three institutions will be used to support a common set of priorities.
Each administrator will retain control over spending his institution’s respective proceeds, which Coatsworth expects to bolster Valentini’s influence, especially over the functioning of departments. “When the decisions are made later in the year about where to hire and at what level, he [Valentini] can say, ‘Look, you may want to hire another person in this obscure department that normally averages three graduate students per class, but we have a shortage of teachers in these three majors, and so here’s something I can put on the table,’” Coatsworth says.
The executive committee will be advised by two representative bodies: the Policy and Planning Committee and a revived institution called the University Planning and Budgeting Committee. Despite being mandated by the statutes of the University, P&B has not met since 1995. At last week’s faculty meeting, however, Dirks announced the administration’s intention to re-establish the defunct body. The deans of the five schools within Arts and Sciences will sit on the committee, advising the executive committee of administrators’ views. It’s expected to work in parallel with the PPC, a nine-person committee that was formed two years ago to voice faculty concerns to Dirks. The chair and vice chair of the PPC also sit on the P&B, strengthening the ties between the two groups. “The notion is that the P&B and the PPC would sort of work together, although they have different tasks,” Coatsworth says.
It’s not immediately clear, however, that the proposed advisory system will be effective. The McKinsey report calls the old P&B “dysfunctional … due to limited ability / willingness of participants to compromise on key issues”—an obstacle the new body will have to overcome. The PPC, meanwhile, has already come under criticism for insufficiently representing faculty concerns in the governance of Arts and Sciences. “I think the Policy and Planning Committee is simply an instrument of the administration,” says William Theodore de Bary, John Mitchell Mason Professor Emeritus and a former provost.
“There hasn’t been enough communication back and forth,” Dirks admits, but he suggests that the PPC’s purpose isn’t exactly to reflect the views of its constituency. “I think it’s very hard for a member of the PPC to represent the faculty in the sense that they go out and collect opinions and convey them directly,” so PPC members have to operate on their own judgments.
Financial aid, meanwhile, will be addressed by yet another new body. While the College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science are currently responsible for planning and funding their own assistance programs, it will soon become the province of the Provost’s office, advised by a new Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid. Valentini says he’s pleased by the reorganization of responsibilities because it relieves the pressure of funding financial aid from the undergraduate schools’ budgets. He explains that when financial aid policy is set by institutions within Arts and Sciences, it has to be weighed against competing concerns like academic operations and professor benefits. “The executive committee doesn’t have to deal with it [because] the University has to deal with it. I consider that a big gain,” he says.
Reinvigorating the Provostship
While often recounting Brinkley’s and Steele’s tenures with ambivalence, faculty sound a note of optimism when discussing Coatsworth’s prospects. “He shows great promise … and he’s got a wicked sense of humor, which will get him very far,” Mercer says. While prestigious institutions’ provosts are often top candidates for university presidencies, Coatsworth isn’t thought to nurture desires for further advancement. “He’s beyond the age where he has ambitions,” the senior University official says. As Jervis puts it, “John didn’t need to be provost.”
Not every observer, however, agrees that Coatsworth’s modest ambitions qualify him for the job. Shortly after coming to the School of International and Public Affairs as a visiting faculty member in 2006, he was named interim dean of the school. Bollinger made him the permanent dean in 2008. Due to his swift rise through the administrative ranks, Coatsworth has yet to be granted tenure. “I think Coatsworth is a great guy, a smart guy, but I would prefer a provost who has tenure, which is not a small thing at this institution,” Shapiro says. “You want somebody who has logged a lot of years here, who knows a lot of the faculty, and is familiar with that faculty.”
Coatsworth says he looks to expand the influence of the provostship: “It is true, for all of the period that I’ve been here now, that for a major research university, the provost’s office has been relatively small and underfunded. But I am clearly an interested party to that.”
Valentini says Coatsworth may ultimately play a key role in the new administrative structures. “He is committed to making this work,” the dean says. “And he will take whatever role he feels he needs to in order to make it work. That may be listening to the executive committee tell him what they’ve decided, or maybe he comes in … and adjudicates.”
Strengthening the College?
For months, faculty, alumni, and administrators alike have expressed a growing interest in creating an endowment for the Core Curriculum. “It would be nice for the college in general and the Core in particular not to have to beg constantly for support of the Core,” Mercer says. “If we have that, many of our problems would be solved.”
Behind the scenes, conversations with alumni have already begun. According to Valentini, an active alumnus recently proposed that “we should raise a hundred million dollars for the 100th anniversary” of the Core, which will be in 2019. The suggestion of a new endowment garnered support from “people who have capability to make large donations,” Valentini says.
But many crucial specifics of the plan remain undefined, including how much money will ultimately be sought. According to Susan Feagin, a special advisor to Bollinger who works on alumni giving, the process won’t move forward until the College has a permanent dean—an appointment that is expected to be made by the end of the semester. And Valentini says the ultimate purpose of the Core endowment remains up for debate: “Do you want to perpetuate a certain curriculum? Do you want to perpetuate 22 students in a class? Do you want to perpetuate 16 students in a class? Do you want to perpetuate everyone reading the same material at the same time? What is it that’s really important?”
De Bary says that without a clear purpose, the endowment might ultimately support programs outside the college. “It all depends … on who’s going to dispose of the funds. There’s no way that an endowment for the Core isn’t going to play a significant role in also supporting the Arts and Sciences. There’s no way to separate the two completely.”
The reconfiguration of Arts and Sciences administration, together with a stronger provost, may provide the stability and strength that Michele Moody-Adams felt the dean of the college lacked. Coatsworth, for his part, says the new structures will “help to deal with some of the tensions we’ve seen during the past, when the dean of the college and the executive vice president didn’t quite see eye to eye.” Dirks describes the changes as the culmination of efforts that have been under way for nearly a decade: “I was very aware that the traditional tensions that had existed between this office and the dean of the college’s office were very counterproductive,” he says. “When I got into a place of doing something about it, I thought that was clearly one of the things that needed to be done.”
But the changes also further integrate the college into the University, a development that some greet with suspicion. While the new structures seem to accord more influence to the dean of the college, they continue the long history of bringing the college into the fold of the larger University. And although the executive committee appears to formalize the influence of the CC and GSAS deans, in some ways it mirrors the McKinsey report’s “Type 1” proposal’s “Operating Committee.” One of the advantages of that setup, the summary explains, is the “ongoing leadership alignment” that such a body would produce.
Will the dean effectively protect the unique features of the college, or will he find himself weighing the interests of five coequal schools and a large faculty? How will the new administrative bodies impact the distribution of University resources? Until the trajectory of Coatsworth’s tenure becomes clear, until the nature of the proposed Core endowment is determined, until the new structures all come into operation, these questions will necessarily remain unanswered. But for the foreseeable future, the direction of Arts and Sciences will be determined by what happens in Low Library. Are there more changes on the horizon? “Right now I think we have enough committees to set up,” Dirks says, “so I think we’ll just leave it alone for now.”