In the 1890s, Columbia, until then a largely undergraduate educational institution, grew into a full research university. Its mission became two-pronged. First, it reaffirmed its original mission of educating young people to serve the public good. Second, it aimed to be a frontier for intellectual advancement and an engine of scientific discovery.
For the 80 years thereafter, the University set up two separate faculties to achieve both goals. One, the Faculty of Arts of Sciences, was dedicated to research; the other, the Faculty of the College, was dedicated to teaching undergraduates. Consistent with this setup, the University hired faculty separately depending on what their role would be. The University’s dual mission proved its worth: Columbia was home to some of the greatest scientific projects of the 20th century while simultaneously establishing itself as one of the country’s top educational institutions.
The quality of the outcome deteriorates, however, with a combination faculty hiring policy. In the early 1990s the University did just that. It integrated the Faculty of the College into the more sizable Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Adopting a trickle-down mentality, the University began to hire more of the Nobel-laureate types and hoped that their scholarly accomplishments would translate into talent in the classroom. This process disregarded the distinction between the skills required by a top thinker and an effective educator. The reality is different. Though not mutually exclusive, celebrated researchers are not often accomplished educators.
If there is one thing that truly enhances a Columbia undergraduate experience, it is engagement with faculty devoted to their students. Of my professors, two groups have impacted and taught me the most. One group comprises those primarily recruited to teach undergraduates: Barnard professors and Core lecturers. The other includes tenured Columbia faculty who’ve elected to privilege undergraduate education, despite the institutional pressures to do otherwise. From conversations with peers, this experience is not unique. Sadly, the joy of having such professors is rare.
A critic could counter that Columbia is right to be as concerned with research as it is currently. It strengthens the school’s prestige and helps rake in money. The presence of Nobel laureates and published faculty grows the University’s esteem both on and off campus. I agree. It is imperative for Columbia to act to improve its brand and establish itself as a world-class university.
A question still remains, however: Does Columbia want to foster the greatest minds in the nation or simply play host to them? While the latter reaps immediate benefits, providing a world-class undergraduate education will pay dividends for generations to come. Taking the College more seriously will enable Columbia to educate as many future Nobel laureates as it hires, a future that will not be possible if more faculty are not hired because of their ability to educate. If that is not true prestige, I am at a loss as to what would be.
There is at least one real solution to this problem: Columbia should treat her twin missions with equal seriousness via two distinct hiring processes. As a result of the current conflation of the two, the College has fallen victim to a two-birds-one-stone attitude. We’re living in the dawn of Columbia’s decision to substitute faculty members’ educator credentials for their research accomplishments. The horizon does not look bright.
Separating the hiring process for educators and researchers would allow Columbia to pick up where it left off in the early 1990s: pursuing both missions with vigor and excellence. Lest you think that this idea is a relic from some distant past, look no further than across Broadway: Barnard continues to serve as a commendable example of a college whose faculty is primarily focused on undergraduate education. As a result, Barnard continues to foster the kind of healthy educational environment that sets her students on paths of intellectual excellence. Columbia’s distracted faculty often cannot do the same because it is tugged increasingly in two directions by our education and research imperatives.
Should Columbia prioritize one mission over the other? No. It should prioritize both. A two-birds-two-stones hiring system departs from the inherent pressures created by the current two-birds-one-stone system. This does not require that researchers be restricted to research and educators to education. A researcher can certainly make for an excellent educator, and vice-versa. All it requires is that Columbia not assume that the roles are the same. More positively, it compels Columbia to treat both of its missions with equal passion. My suspicion is that beneficiaries will stretch from the halls of Hamilton to the labs of Pupin via the offices of Low.
Derek Turner is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and anthropology. He contributes regularly to The Canon.