University President Lee Bollinger discussed financial problems that low-income students face, concerns about diminishing student enthusiasm for education, and the influence of the Chinese government on Columbia academics during a fireside chat this Tuesday.
At the event, which is held at Bollinger’s house several times a year, undergraduate students from Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the School of General Studies posed questions covering food insecurity for low-income students and the University’s unclear mission.
Students at the chat expressed that Bollinger’s vision of prioritizing knowledge for its own sake was not realized at Columbia, citing the stress of writing a thesis and the apathy of fellow classmates. They said Columbia had become more of a vocational school, with students focused merely on GPAs and finding a good job, rather than on the pursuit of knowledge.
Bollinger denied that most students at Columbia had this attitude.
“It doesn’t match up with my own experience,” Bollinger said. “I find the students overwhelmingly responsive. I’ll bet you other people who teach in this room feel this way too.”
Another student posed questions about food insecurity and the difficulties of low-income students. Bollinger responded that he has had “multiple conversations” about the welfare of students, noting that the administration always finds these problems “disturbing.”
Vice President for Campus Services Scott Wright, who also attends most fireside chats, followed by explaining the many steps the University has taken to make sure low-income students are well provided for; these include creating the Food Bank at Columbia and lowering the cost of some upperclassman housing.
Bollinger questioned whether the University was fully responsible for the food security of its students.
“It is also important to realize that people are adults here and we don’t control their lives completely,” Bollinger said. “There are ways in which people can get themselves into trouble where it’s not the institution’s fault, but we want to help.”
Students also questioned Bollinger’s stance on Columbia’s connection to the Confucius Institute. The nonprofit is connected with the Chinese Ministry of Education, which has allegedly suppressed free speech and exploited discriminatory hiring practices. Many other universities, such as the University of Chicago, have chosen to disassociate themselves from the Institute.
Bollinger remarked that he knew about this but did not offer any definite stance on the topic, although he reinforced that academic freedom is one of his priorities.
“We can never compromise on the academic freedom or the principle of hiring and non-discrimination,” Bollinger said. “We cannot let any government dictate what the substance is, or what it is that we pursue.”