State of the College: A Time of Transition | Teachers College Columbia University

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State of the College: A Time of Transition

President Arthur Levine and Interim Dean Edmund W. Gordon shared the Milbank Chapel podium September 20 to deliver the Annual State of the College address. A capacity audience of staff, faculty, and new and returning students was on hand.

President Arthur Levine and Interim Dean Edmund W. Gordon shared the Milbank Chapel podium September 20 to deliver the Annual State of the College address. A capacity audience of staff, faculty, and new and returning students was on hand.

In his welcoming remarks, Levine thanked Karen Zumwalt, who stepped down as dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs this past summer after "five extraordinary years of service to the College." Zumwalt's deanship recorded a number of major achievements, he noted, including the hiring of 40 percent of the faculty, a college-wide reorganization, and the development of five-year plans. "We all owe Karen a tremendous debt of gratitude," he said.

Levine's remarks about Dean Gordon, who is acting as interim Dean until a permanent successor is found, were no less appreciative. "Yet in one respect, he has not succeeded," Levine commented. "He has chronically failed at retirement." Following Gordon's introduction of new faculty members, the president offered his perspective on the state of TC today - and its place in a rapidly changing world.

"The contours and terrain of post-secondary education are going to look very different in the years to come," he said. "There are for-profit colleges and online colleges; but even campus-based colleges are increasing their reliance on electronic communication and information technologies." TC, which is rooted in 19th-century educational values and ideals, thus finds itself at a crossroads. Which path will it take? "Both," he said. "And thank God we don't have to choose."

Levine noted that TC remains wholly committed to the three historic missions of higher education: teaching, research and service. Notwithstanding its core strengths - "an education characterized by close interaction and apprenticeship between our faculty student scholarship" - TC must address several pressing issues in the coming years, he added. "We need to reduce our dependence on tuition and increase financial aid in order continue attracting outstanding students," he said. "We need to develop a rich intellectual community that people will want to be part of, rather than join the world of e-commerce outside the university."

At the same time, TC must recognize its position in a changing world - one marked by shifting demographics, an aging student population and the pervasive influence of technology. "Technology can enable us to reach larger numbers of students and have far more influence than ever before," he said. "It can position us to extend the mission of Teachers College and the influence of our ideas." A successful program created by Thomas Sobol, Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice, that currently serves 50-60 school superintendents each year "could reach all 15,000 of the nation's superintendents via the Internet." Likewise, the First Year Teachers Program, which reduced attrition in a Brooklyn school district from 60 to 10 percent, could be rolled out to school districts across the country.

By embracing technology, TC will also be better equipped to continue its three main activities - teaching, research, and service. While private-sector competitors in the higher education arena appear to be interested only in teaching - and in creating programs that attract the highest numbers of students - campus-based schools like TC must take a broader view. "We absolutely cannot allow teaching to be removed from research and service," he said. "If the universities don't provide those functions, no one else will." Technology will also figure importantly in Teachers College Ventures (TCV), "which will reduce tuition dependence and support prized activities on the traditional campus."

Meanwhile, TC remains focused primarily on building on its strength as "a historic brick university." Looking back over the past year, Levine cited several steps in that direction, including the drafting of five-year plans, the searching for 21 new faculty, planning for the expansion and modernization of TC's library (through a gift by Gottesman family), and the launching of a $140 million capital campaign to fund physical plant refurbishment, financial aid, and faculty and program support.

"The priorities for the coming year haven't shifted a great deal," Levine added. "The capital campaign, five-year plans, the library project and the improvement of our physical plant will keep moving forward, as will our enormous hiring needs." The construction of a dormitory on 121st Street, and the refurbishment of several rooms in Grace Dodge and Milbank Chapel are all in the works.

"Diversity remains at the top of my agenda," Levine said. He announced the appointment of Janice Robinson as the Assistant and Special counsel to the President for Diversity and Community. The President added, "By the end of this year, I'd like to have someone in place to head the Institute for Urban Minority Education. And I'd also like to convert the two target of opportunity positions in the pipeline into real faculty." He also noted the college's ongoing search for a permanent dean. "There is really nothing more important," he said. "My hope is that we'll have a dean in place by summer."

As interim Dean, Gordon acknowledged that he had returned to TC to provide continuity in a period of transition. "But I do not plan to be a caretaker dean," he said. "I want to be the voice of the faculty and an advocate for the values that traditionally have been associated with the Academy."

In point of fact, Gordon said, TC is in the midst of not one, but several transitions. "Our departmental structure is relatively new and, I hope, not cast in concrete," he said. Looking beyond the campus, he noted several shifts in "our conceptions and awareness of the social contexts in which we work." The world has been transformed by globalization, technology, and heightened awareness of diversity issues. Basic assumptions about the creation and transference of knowledge, "and even our conception of who can be educated" are changing. "Enslaved black people once deemed uneducable are now professors and even deans in our best universities. Women once thought to be inferior to males in their ability - or right - to learn now stand as colleagues in every area of intellectual endeavor."

Gordon exhorted the TC community to join him in reshaping the college in a variety of ways. Among his goals: to strengthen and enrich the college's intellectual climate; to elevate pedagogy to a privileged position in the work of the college and the concerns of the nation; and to harness technology for the improvement of educational enterprises and processes. His most compelling priority "is the uncoupling of academic achievement from the social divisions from which our students come." It is not acceptable, Gordon added, "to let social class, ethnicity, first language or gender continue to predict the quality of students' academic achievement."

"Integrating old and new members into our continuing and changing community of scholars will be no small challenge," the Dean said. "But ensuring that Teachers College is a place that such scholars will want to be will require the very best of each of us."

Published Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001