At the Center of It All

At the Center of It All

Istanbul and the Challenges Facing Bollinger’s Global Vision

Published on November 29, 2016


n Istanbul, an inconspicuous office building full of conference rooms sits near Taksim Square. Amid a year of turmoil—just this summer, an attempted military coup, an attack on Atatürk Airport, and increased government punishment of journalists—it remains a productive, if small, operation, hosting the occasional lecture and programming.

This building, strung with blue banners and full of stately, if compact, interiors, is one of the eight Columbia Global Centers.

Before I started reporting for this story, I barely knew the Global Centers existed. But I wanted to understand how Columbia had responded to the recent pressure universities face to globalize. So my first move was to go to the University website to find some sort of propagandic artifact that would fulfill its propagandic ends: to present a mission, clearly and concisely.

It is in this search for red ribbons and big scissors that I first stumble upon, in a video, the Global Centers network—the crown jewel of the initiatives University President Lee Bollinger launched to increase Columbia’s global presence (among others, like the World Leaders Forum and the Committee on Global Thought).

Columbia’s Global Centers are innovative players in the landscape of globalized universities, sitting in between two extreme models for global education. They are distinct from branch campuses, like those established by NYU in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, which are full-grown university outposts with their own staff, faculty, and administration. Branch campuses have long received criticism for their prohibitively high operational costs and infrastructural heft.

But rather than seeking an antidote to high costs by confining global growth to partnership with other universities, Columbia has set up small centers in spaces like office buildings, which can act as academic hubs within regional communities. The Global Centers are extensions of the University in a way a partner program with another university could not be.

Watching the video, I smile at recycled Columbia stock footage and only roll my eyes a little when a chorus starts to sing exultantly right as the Global Centers insignia spirals in (as if that shitty, pixelated Copperplate Gothic Std logo parted the Red Sea and brought down the manna from heaven). But one scene made me uneasy: the moment, 40 seconds in, when blue lines stretched over a world map like the splayed legs of a crushed spider. Arachnid New York extends her limbs to Amman, to Istanbul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Santiago, Paris, Rio. The eighth leg stretches to reach what I knew from the list of Global Centers would be Beijing. But the world is too big for a video of 720 by 1080 pixels, so the line extends indefinitely off the screen, reaching an end I cannot see.

As I report this story, this image comes to epitomize the fundamental problems of the Global Centers in engaging their two main constituencies: students and faculty.

Students at Columbia feel they are unable to access the centers’ resources, whose capabilities are hidden from sight like the line extending to Beijing. Their complaints stem from a problem of awareness that has plagued the Global Centers, and reports on undergraduate engagement by University committees have criticized the centers for not presenting a clear enough mission to students and for failing to increase rates of studying abroad among students.

Meanwhile, faculty members who have had close contact with Global Centers do not feel blocked off from the centers, but instead note an identity still in formation. They say that the centers are improving their regional presence and their connections back to Morningside Heights, but do not agree on which of these priorities to emphasize.

This is a tension practically written into the Global Centers’ infrastructure. The centers, from their beginnings, were meant to be organic institutions—a choice made to facilitate programming relevant to the regions where they are situated.

But this priority has engendered a difficult contradiction in the centers’ overall mission, as the centers are, of course, part of the Columbia network. Because of their liminal positioning, centers are at once regional but institutional, interconnected but siloed, caught in a balancing act between these two separate sets of priorities.

This uncertain characterization of the Global Centers’ broader aims cuts off and shifts out of focus, like the network of lines emanating from New York.

After the three months I’ve spent trying to definitively state the centers’ purpose—after three months spent searching for a narrative to guide this story of Columbia’s global growth—these spidery lines, with their shrouded ends and cut-off corners, are what I’ve found.

Diversity of programming

To see how undergraduates interact with the Global Centers, I need a human face, not Charlotte’s web. So I find two students who were planning to go abroad to Istanbul on a program organized in conjunction with the Columbia Global Center located there. However, these students, Bruce Young, a sophomore in Columbia College, and Noam Alon, a General Studies sophomore, ended up in Venice, Italy—a destination very different from what they’d anticipated—after the program they planned on attending, on Democracy and Constitutional Engineering, was cancelled because of safety concerns.

Alon and Young also happened to be recipients of the Presidential Global Fellowship, which  funds students traveling abroad on a Columbia program over the summer after their first year of college.

Like the Columbia Global Centers, the fellowship has been a cornerstone of Bollinger’s global vision. The stated goal of the program is to encourage a global education among Columbia’s undergraduate population. Its recipients are among the sole undergraduates who interface with the Columbia Global Centers; one of the primary objectives of the initiative, in fact, was to increase undergraduate interaction with the centers, Bollinger explained in an interview with Spectator on November 21.

The money can only fund programs that are “Columbia run,” usually meaning they are organized in collaboration with the Columbia Global Centers. For professors who obtain the funding necessary to run their own programs through various grants, the centers—which do not offer physical lodging—can act as facilitators of their trips, leveraging their connections within the region to help professors plan their itineraries.

The Columbia Global Centers can facilitate a very high level of programming. Through these programs, the University sends students to regions of the world, like Istanbul, that generally go underrepresented in a study abroad scene heavily favoring western Europe. The typical study abroad program would rely on forming a relationship with another university, which would have end-to-end control of, the theory goes, a cheaper but lower-quality experience.

When professors can secure the funding to support their Columbia-run programs, they believe the Global Center model is useful for organizing their trips. John Huber, a professor of history and the coordinator for a program on Democracy and Constitutional Engineering in Istanbul and Tunis, tells me that he never would have even tried organizing his trip if he wasn’t provided logistical assistance by the Istanbul Center, along with the Amman Global Center.

“Columbia is one of the universities that is least risk averse. They’re willing to let students go out and learn in places that other universities aren’t.”

—John Huber, a professor of history and the coordinator for the program on Democracy and Constitutional Engineering in Istanbul and Tunis

Likewise, Karen Van Dyck and Martha Howell, two professors who organized a seminar on Byzantine and Modern Greek Encounters, were able to use the Global Center as a resource in planning their trip. Van Dyck tells me that the center was also helpful in setting up events throughout the city when she organized her program. She worked with them, for example, to do a multilingual literature reading in a local bookstore.

Moreover, the Global Center model has facilitated a healthy attitude toward developing programming that covers a more diverse set of offerings. “Columbia is one of the universities that is least risk averse,” Huber says. “They’re willing to let students go out and learn in places that other universities aren’t.”

He compares his experiences to those of one of his colleagues at Princeton University, Nolan McCarty. McCarty once speculated that Princeton students would not be allowed to attend a program like the one that Huber organized because of stringent administrative safety standards.

In 2014, Columbia had its determination to go abroad put to the test. A few months before the program’s first iteration, on March 18, 2015, terrorists attacked the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, a popular tourist destination, killing 21 museum-goers. Huber relates that the Office of Global Programs, under the leadership of Dean of Undergraduate Global Programs and Assistant Vice President for International Education Michael Pippenger, allowed the program to proceed as planned, since the global consensus was that the incident was a tragedy—but one that could have happened anywhere.

Facing a similar situation exactly one year and one day later, administrators made a different decision. On March 19, 2016, there was a suicide bombing on İstiklal Avenue, a popular pedestrian road in Istanbul. The bombing was the latest in a string of terrorist attacks in the city that spring. And, unlike in the Tunis situation the previous year, it prompted a warning from the U.S. State Department to cease all but mission critical travel to Turkey and a degradation of Istanbul’s safety ranking from International SOS, a travel security firm contracted by Columbia.

Thirteen days later, staffers from the Office of Global Programs assessed the situation as dangerous and sent out emails signed by Pippenger and program administrators cancelling all undergraduate trips to Istanbul.

This decision affected Young and Alon, the two Global Fellows who had planned to go on Huber’s trip. Talking to them, it is easy to see why they were selected for the fellowship: The students had different interests, but they are emblematic of Bollinger’s vision of global engagement in their own ways.

Alon, an international student from Israel, was originally attracted to Columbia for its global reputation, and sought to avail herself of those resources by attending a short summer program abroad (short was important to her; she is married, and did not want to spend too long away from home). Meanwhile, Young—who studies philosophy but also likes politics—wanted an opportunity to think about democracies apart from America’s.

The two speak excitedly when they describe the three-week program they had planned to attend in Istanbul and Tunis, Democracy and Constitutional Engineering. While they maintain a positive outlook, they both deflate when I ask about the six-week summer program in Italy that they both ended up attending.

I ask Alon if she would have preferred to go to Istanbul over Venice, even though the answer is obvious. Her response unfurls fast, spilling out before I finish my question—I can tell how many times she’s imagined voicing the answer to this question before.

“Oh, for sure I would have preferred to go to Istanbul,” she blurts. “No doubt. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to do something else after the original program was cancelled, I just wish it had been something more along the lines of the things that I want to know.”

The tone of Alon’s response, both discontent and grateful, paints an apt picture of the nature of the shortcomings of Columbia’s global offerings: It is not that they do not exist, just that there is a lack of diversity in those options, resulting in an inability to address the interests of all students.

In a report authored by the Educational Policy and Planning Committee’s Task Force on Global Education, the complaint of a lack of diversity in program destinations surfaces in a section on general findings regarding undergraduates. Noting improvements in the area, the report nonetheless concludes that “there are significant discrepancies between goals and existing opportunities. Columbia University undergraduates appear to desire more, and more diverse, opportunities than are currently available.”

In line with this conclusion, Alon and Young both express frustration in the lack of diversity of available programming due to insufficient funding and the small-scale nature of the existing programs, despite the wide range of possible trips that could be facilitated by the Global Centers network.

“I enjoyed [the program in Italy], but I took it as enrichment—like, to know more. It’s not my field, it’s not my interest, it’s not where I am aiming in my life to go,” Alon says.

For Young, the situation was less disappointing. As a philosophy major, the Venice program, which had a cultural studies option, posed some relevance to his academics, although in a different way from what he’d anticipated.

But when I ask him if he perceived a skew in offerings when he had to select a new program, he tells me yes.

“It’s for nothing else than the safety of students and professors, especially in countries where professors are being watched and censored by the government, which is unfortunately what’s going on in Turkey,” he says of that skew. “At the same time, there’s always a possibility that skew isn’t so justified sometimes. I think there’s definitely [an attitude to] follow the money.”

While the claim of whether Columbia intentionally follows the money to certain places—a problem Bollinger specifically created the Global Centers to avoid—is a contentious one, the monetary investment required to facilitate programming in all the cities covered by the centers does, in practice, explain the lack of diversity in programmatic offerings.

The low operational costs of Global Centers have allowed for quick expansion to eight locations in just over half a year, but the programming necessary to allow undergraduates to actually access these resources, the report notes, is very expensive, and can have negative effects on the Morningside community by diminishing the number of faculty members who can teach on campus.

Huber admits to this funding problem. “My program is really lucky with the level of financial support we’ve gotten from the University,” he acknowledges, perhaps using “the University” as a metonym for Bollinger and his wife, Jean Bollinger, who made the generous personal donation that funded his program in 2015. “And the University is working really hard to make it possible to have more programs of that level.”

While the Global Centers can mitigate expenses through their connections to local institutions, the costs of running a Columbia program, when there is no clear provider of lodging, security, or food, still add up to a large figure, which is why they require such high levels of funding.

Although the University has planned a capital campaign, which designates $1.1 billion toward the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and which will help fund some of these global initiatives, the future of the current funding that facilitates the resources necessary for professors to even use the centers is looking uncertain. Other than personal donations, the two main sources of funding for global programming developed in collaboration with the Columbia Global Centers are the Mellon Foundation grant and the President’s Global Innovation Fund.

But the EPPC’s report relates that, in a plan to renew Columbia’s Mellon grant, the Office of Global Programs will need to reduce the number of planned courses abroad from eight to four, because the costs were higher than anticipated. And, because there will be fewer courses, with low enrollment rates of five or six students, some faculty members worry that the costs of running the Mellon-funded program will outweigh the benefits, according to the EPPC report.

Faculty that the report’s authors interviewed also expressed frustration that while Columbia Global Centers can lower costs for certain programs by leveraging their deep regional connections, the uneven coverage provided by the Global Center network “inhibited the possibility or at least the perception of the viability of proposals for the Mellon” in certain parts of the world.

In the meantime, however, students are largely unable to access the full diversity of the Global Center network’s offerings. And so two Presidential Global Fellows, who were meant to benefit from the centers, ended up going to Italy, where there is no center at all.

Undergraduate access

“I don’t think they’re democratic,” Andrew Pasquier, a senior in Columbia College studying political science and urban studies, says of the Global Centers. “I don’t think they’re supposed to be democratic—democratic in the way that they’re actually supposed to be accessible to a lot of students. I think they wouldn’t function if they were that way.”

Ipek Cem Taha, the director of the Istanbul Global Center and advisor for Strategic Development to Safwan Masri, the EVP of Global Centers and Development, states a purpose at odds with Pasquier’s vision. She writes in an email, “The Istanbul Center is no different than the other Global Centers in that our primary purpose has always been to serve the needs of the Columbia community—schools, departments, faculty, and very importantly, the students.”

Pasquier is one of those rare undergraduates who has had a great deal of interaction with the Columbia Global Centers. The Presidential Global Fellowship did not exist when he was a first-year, but he nonetheless found a way to loop himself into the network. He took part in Huber’s program at the Global Center in Turkey, went to the Global Center in Amman, Jordan, when he was planning an Alternative Break Program for the summer of 2015, and studied abroad at Reid Hall.

Throughout our interview, Pasquier references his global experiences as if they are nothing out of the ordinary. He casually brings up a trustees meeting that he was invited to while he was in Paris. He hadn’t realized that he was going to be sitting next to the University president, he tells me. So when he found himself at Bollinger’s table, he, you know, winged it and “just chatted” about Tunisian politics.

Despite all his interactions with the centers, Pasquier is thoroughly convinced that they do not exist for the benefit of undergraduates—though he stresses they were always helpful to him when he approached them. Instead, Pasquier thinks the undergraduate programming that is done in collaboration with the centers arises in incidental moments when “there’s a belief and an interest in them and enough money in certain weird corners and high-up areas of Columbia to make them run,” citing the program organized by Huber. In other words, it’s an unsustainable model.

That Pasquier identifies the centers as initiatives that do not exist for the genuine benefit of students speaks to the degree of failure of the centers’ student engagement initiatives.

“I don’t think they’re supposed to be democratic—democratic in the way that they’re actually supposed to be accessible to a lot of students. I think they wouldn’t function if they were that way.”

—Andrew Pasquier, Columbia College senior

The 2016 report by the EPPC notes these failings. “If, as the Senate Report noted, Columbia is unique among its peer institutions in having a material presence on four continents (via the Columbia Global Centers),” it says, “this seems to have no observable effect on the rates of its students’ study abroad.” Specific figures are difficult to obtain, but the Istanbul Center’s 2015 annual report puts 169 undergraduates as engaging with Istanbul Global Center over its lifetime, counting multiple interactions per person.

A number of factors explain the disengagement that students feel with the Centers: a general student apathy toward studying abroad, problems of engagement from the center, and—perhaps hardest to correct for—a larger problem of disagreement over the fundamental purpose of the Global Centers that has prevented them from solidifying a niche for themselves.

Students who have studied abroad at programs organized with the Istanbul Global Center tell me that, based on their experiences, those who did not attend a Columbia program are unaware of the resources that the Global Centers can offer them.

Aidan Mehigan, who graduated from Columbia College in 2016 and attended a program on Byzantine Studies and Urban Mapping led in collaboration with the Istanbul Global Center, says Columbia’s prime urban location may be a reason why students choose not to study abroad—despite the rewards of doing so.

The Columbia experience on the Morningside campus is just so great that you wouldn’t want to miss out on it at all,” Mehigan says. “Being in New York is so alluring that it would be very tough to convince you to go to miss out on a semester or a year of that and go elsewhere.”

The heft of the Core Curriculum, as well, was a commonly cited complaint—and the primary one that registers on Bollinger’s radar.

To counter the problems Columbia students may find in planning extended trips abroad, Bollinger says he wants to develop opportunities for students to spend time abroad in shorter spurts in conjunction with their classwork.

Bollinger wants these opportunities to expand, with students traveling to Global Centers for a weekend to report back to their classes—a vision which sounds like it would create a class of Columbia jet-setters accustomed to the pace of an interconnected modern world. An ideal sample Columbian’s weekend itinerary, in this plan: do physics problem set, do laundry, do Mumbai.

“If I’m taking a Freedom of the Press course,” Bollinger states as an example, “I would find it extremely valuable to have some students go to Istanbul and utilize the center there to try and understand what is happening with [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s effort to control the press.”

(Bollinger acknowledges, however, that at the moment the money does not exist to make this kind of interaction happen. He is hoping that the money covered by a planned capital campaign for the Arts and Sciences faculty, set to raise $1.1 billion, will fund some of these opportunities.)

Even if the centers succeed in creating these connections, they may face a larger problem of engagement with their most obvious audiences. If Istanbul is any indication, they are not only facing struggles with connecting with the Morningside campus, but to students already in region who are on non-Columbia-organized programs. The reach of the center can be limited to the programs it directly helps organize, which make up only a part of the share of programs that students participate in while in Turkey.

Based on interviews with students who had studied abroad in Istanbul, usually at Boğaziçi University, the record of communication between the Columbia Global Centers and  students—in other words, the activeness of the role the centers played in their experiences abroad—depended mostly on the students themselves, with limited efforts by the centers to engage.

Amanda Quirk, a senior in Columbia College studying astrophysics, went abroad to Boğaziçi University her junior fall. Though she offers a favorable view of her experience in Istanbul, she also called her experience with the Turkish government a “bureaucratic nightmare.”

“If I’m taking a Freedom of the Press course, I would find it extremely valuable to have some students go to Istanbul and utilize the center there to try and understand what is happening with Erdoğan’s effort to control the press.”

—University President Lee Bollinger

Quirk, who was unable to obtain a residence permit, technically was in the country illegally for the entire duration of her study abroad. She says she wished the center had taken a more active role in helping students maneuver the Turkish bureaucracy.

Students who were in Istanbul for study abroad programs say their interactions with the Global Center were self-initiated; the center did not reach out to them. Because of this dynamic, students who did not know to reach out would miss out on the resources of the center.

In other words, the problem of access boils down to a problem of awareness.

Taha thinks that this gap between students and the center will be bridged by the instatement of a new chair for Turkish studies based in Columbia’s Morningside campus, who is expected to  “bring a new momentum to this overall goal and create further impetus for student and faculty exchange between Istanbul and our New York City campus.”

But there could be a broader lack of clarity of mission in the centers. Yasemin Akçagüner is a senior at Barnard and an Istanbul native who has engaged with the centers on both theoretical and practical levels. Two years ago, Akçagüner was a news reporter for Spectator who covered global education. While at home over the summer, she had her first direct interaction with the centers after a friend told her about a lecture on the recent coup attempt, hosted by the Global Center. On a theoretical level, she already had engaged with them more than most students because of her reporting for Spectator; she had thought of them as vaguely defined marketing initiatives, with the potential to effect real change. Her interaction with the center that summer solidified her opinions.

“I was the only person who was from Istanbul and who was actually taking classes on Columbia’s campus at that point in time,” she remembers. “You would think that the Istanbul Global Center would also serve us as a population, but I don’t think it’s what it’s doing, or I don’t think that’s what it’s meant for.”

But the question becomes—if the centers don’t connect to students in Morningside Heights, don’t serve students studying abroad, and don’t serve student residents, then what is the centers’ purpose with respect to students? Naomi Cohen, who graduated Columbia College in 2015, contacted the Istanbul Global Center while she was in Boğaziçi University. She tells me that she suspects that the centers’ lack of a broader mission may keep students from engaging—they seem to have no imperative to do so.

She says this lack of awareness seems to come from something larger than the Global Center itself—a lack of a mission from the top down. “The vision was very unclear,” she says of the centers’ broader integration into the Columbia community. “I think some kind of clear vision about how they can serve students might be useful, and what they have access to, to be able to serve that purpose.”

A contested mission

Cohen observed that the Istanbul Global Center seemed to have no coherent purpose to present to students. Her observation has a concrete foundation: The University has not yet executed the role that the Global Centers will play in its global mission, as the Istanbul Center’s current predicament may demonstrate.

The contention began with a February 2016 petition, led by Rosalind Morris, a professor of anthropology and then a member of the Istanbul Center’s Faculty Steering Committee. Over 30 members of the faculty signed it.

Citing concerns of increased censorship by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, faculty called for a potential shutdown of the Istanbul Global Center and for Bollinger to publicly denounce the center. But in response, Bollinger declined to do so out of concerns for the safety of Istanbul staffers.

The proper course of action in controversial situations like these—still the subject of discussion by the Faculty Steering Committee—will be navigated by an incipient advisory committee to the president for future cases. But the correct course of action is far from clear. Calls vary from an imperative to buckle down and stay in Istanbul, as is Bollinger’s opinion, to a potential suspension of operations in the Istanbul Global Center, an idea that faculty who signed the petition suggested deserves contemplation.

What the center will do hinges on an assessment of its objectives: Can Columbia best meet the goals of the Global Centers by residing in Istanbul, remaining a center for academic freedom? Or should it make a statement, and assure the safety of employees, by withdrawing? It is a question of definition, and one with paramount stakes. The contested opinions on the answer suggest a deeper instability in the center’s mission.

This is an improvement from the previous state of dialogue surrounding the centers’ mission, which was, as Bollinger says, a conversation about why the centers existed rather than what they should do.

Now, the general impression among the faculty is that the centers have done enough work to be considered unquestionable aspects of Columbia’s global infrastructure, even if students are not using them enough. Bollinger describes faculty belief that the centers are ingrained fixtures of the University—as much an established institutional landmark as the library, if not one with an edifice towering over central campus.

But while the centers are no longer the subject of existential doubts, the faculty and administration still disagree considerably on their mission.

Faculty members and administrators who run the Istanbul Center comment on their individual impressions of its purpose. Van Dyck, who is a member of the Steering Committee, tells me the centers have become more regional, hiring Istanbul natives like graduates of Boğaziçi, who have upped the efficiency of their operations. Taha, on the other hand, writes that the center has been connecting more with the Columbia community on the Morningside campus, by bringing staff to New York City and establishing joint symposiums. And growth has occurred along both these vectors—regional and institutional.

The struggle going forward will be to find a way to balance these priorities when they clash and to figure out what action will be of benefit to both interests.

As Van Dyck tells me, the current situation in Istanbul necessitates weighing these two tensions. She tells me there are two main ways of thinking of the centers: first, as regional entities, and second, as part of a broader, educational network. Their participation in the latter ideal demand a commitment to free speech; their presence in the former, a commitment to collaboration with students and faculty in Istanbul through various means.

She thinks these two priorities, in this case, are not mutually irreconcilable. “There’s got to be a way of promoting freedom of speech and education without just sort of completely closing off,” Van Dyck says.

She gives the example of allowing public access to the Istanbul Center’s library, so that people can still access JSTOR, and of continuing interaction through neighboring regions such as Greece and Cyprus.

But this is not the vision at which the faculty who signed the petition arrived, when they suggested a potential suspension of operations in Istanbul.

Taha offers a vision of reconciling these two priorities, which for her would come through persistent presence.

“I think the best way to overcome these difficult times (which includes attacks on academic freedoms) is to stand in solidarity with affected communities,” she writes. “The presence of the Istanbul Center is a reminder that the Columbia community shares that solidarity. Current developments in Turkey remind us of the importance of the Global Centers in helping us interpret events, so that together we can work towards a better global understanding.”

At least for now, though, that balance—the one Taha describes and Van Dyck provides suggestions to achieve—may be beyond easy comprehension or consensus.

“It’s a very hard problem,” Bollinger acknowledges.

Looking for a rock to ground my thinking through this challenge, I return to the “About” page of the Global Centers website, set on re-watching the 60-second vision onto which I originally latched. Perhaps, this time around, the line to Beijing would not cut off; perhaps the message would emerge.

I am greeted by an improvement, of sorts—a Vimeo service message, in bold Helvetica:

I will know that this article has been read by the administrators behind the Global Centers when the video link on this page is fixed, as it inevitably will be. But fixing the link, returning the video to its former, over-edited glory, won’t solve the larger problem of a contested mission and an unengaged student body.

That problem will take more than 60 seconds to fix.

Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.

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