Prof. Prewitt Takes on a Global Challenge

Special from The Record

March 18, 2010Bookmark and Share
Professor Kenneth Prewitt talks about Columbia's response to the challenges of globalization. (4:04)

Columbia this month opens two new global centers, a European center in Paris and a South Asia center in Mumbai, expanding the number of Columbia Global Centers to four.

They join centers for East Asia in Beijing and the Middle East in Amman as part of a growing network that will facilitate international and interdisciplinary collaborations, new research projects and academic programming, as well as new service-learning and study abroad opportunities. The Beijing and Amman centers opened in March 2009, and students and professors there are already participating in projects involving the schools of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; International and Public Affairs; Social Work; and the Arts; as well as the Earth Institute and affiliate Teachers College.

“We simply do not know enough about a world that’s really being transformed by forces of globalization that are driven largely by economic markets and new technologies,” says Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger. “We have a long history of engagement in the world and international study, but we’ve chosen a distinctive path toward deepening our global perspective across many continents and many parts of the University community here in New York.”

Last year, Bollinger asked Kenneth Prewitt, the Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at the School of International and Public Affairs, to help chart that “distinctive path” by serving as vice president of the Global Centers initiative. That has kept Prewitt on the move, both abroad and on campus, as he meets with deans, department chairs, faculty and students intrigued by the program.

Prewitt has an impressive history as both a scholar and administrator. After 17 years as a political science professor at the University of Chicago—where he won a Guggenheim fellowship and was also the department’s chair—he spent the following two decades serving in government and non-profit organizations. He was president of the Social Science Research Council, senior vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation and then director of the U.S. Census Bureau as it conducted its 2000 count.

While many universities in the United States are building degree-granting branch campuses abroad, Prewitt says that Columbia’s approach is at once more flexible, far-flung and potentially transformative than a capital-intensive effort to recreate the Columbia experience abroad.

“Columbia’s global centers are meant to be nimble regional hubs, forming a network which in turn will establish partnerships with many universities and partners abroad eager to collaborate in bringing together scholars, students, public officials, private enterprise and innovators from a broad range of fields,” he said.

The latest additions to Columbia’s global center network will take advantage of existing facilities and programs. The Paris global center will be based near the Luxembourg Gardens at Reid Hall, a facility Columbia has owned and operated since 1964. With leadership from the University’s Mailman School of Public Health, it will be home to new global public health programs and collaborations between Columbia and European partners in the field. It will also extend collaborations established by the Columbia-Paris Alliance Program, founded in 2002 as a joint venture with the Ecole Polytechnique, Sciences Po and the Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne.

The South Asia global center will build on relationships forged by the Earth Institute, which has established itself in India as a trusted adviser to government policy makers and nongovernmental organizations on a wide range of antipoverty, energy and environmental sustainability issues. Nicholas Dirks, the executive vice president for arts and sciences and a scholar of Indian history and culture, said that Columbia has a deep academic history in the subcontinent, with a wide range of prominent faculty with personal and professional engagement there. Led by Professor Nirupam Bajpai, the Earth Institute’s senior development advisor, the center will also have a Studio-X Mumbai, a global project of the architecture school, which already has labs in Beijing, Amman, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow and New York City.

The changes won’t just be occurring abroad. “One thing I want to stress is that one of the big payoffs of this initiative is how it will transform us back here,” Prewitt added. “We will be a different University in a quarter of a century…You’ve got to cross intellectual borders even as you’re crossing geographic borders to deal with the interesting questions that are before us.”

—by Bridget O'Brian