When Lee C. Bollinger considered how to introduce the University’s new provost to the Columbia community, he decided “the best way was a radical one, of simply listening to him talk about his ideas.”
University Provost Claude Steele discusses his decision to come to Columbia. (6:30)
So less than a month into his tenure as University provost and professor of psychology, Claude Steele gave the academic year’s first University Lecture in Low Library Rotunda. He spoke “for about 35 minutes on 25 years of research” about his ground-breaking exploration of stereotype threat, which centers on how negative group images can affect intellectual performance.
Steele, whose pioneering scholarship is widely admired, has won many awards, fellowships and grants over the years. Indeed, when he won the William James Fellow Award in 2001, Steele was lauded for how his “dazzling analyses and eloquent experimental work has revolutionized the way social scientists think about prejudice and stereotypes,” according to the citation from the Association for Psychological Science. The award is given for a lifetime of significant intellectual contributions to the basic science of psychology.
Now, he has arrived at Columbia after 18 years at Stanford to apply his expertise to the administrative side of the academic mission. Since starting his job Sept. 1, he has been meeting with University deans, professors, students and administrators as he tries to acquaint himself with his new East Coast domain. While he has directed important research institutes, he says that taking on the management of a university of Columbia’s scope and scale offers an invigorating intellectual opportunity.
“It’s an unusual thing to do at this age,” said Steele in an interview. “I’m 63, and that’s not an age when people typically pick up and start over again. It’s both a challenge to us but also very exciting and energizes us on a daily basis. To move to New York at this point—after you’ve lived a very pastoral life in California for so long—has its excitement.”
Bollinger, in his introduction of Steele’s lecture, said that “it’s very clear that while our new provost has much to learn from us, we, too, have much to learn from him.” As for Steele himself, he said that he is “having the thrill of an anthropologist of learning a new place.”
Q. Why come to Columbia now?
As friends have told me, Columbia may have the slight habit of underselling itself. But from the outside, and especially to somebody who’s been in academics as long as I have, it’s an extremely interesting and importantly positioned university. It’s in a major city, it’s an international crossroads itself, it’s a diverse institution and it’s an academically powerful and importantly well-exposed institution. So it’s an attractive place to come to.
Q. What are your thoughts on the role of a provost, and why take on that role now?
Life has phases. I had never thought about being the provost of a university; I was very happily in an administrative position, and I wasn’t looking for anything. But then this opportunity came along, and it came from somebody I hold in very high regard. Lee Bollinger is somebody that I have known for many years. I was an expert witness in the University of Michigan case defending affirmative action, which went to the Supreme Court. With a provostship, you’re in partnership with the president in drafting the academic direction of the institution. I found it very quickly a very attractive thing to do at this point in life.
Q. It’s early still, but could you share what you plan to do as provost?
A provost is a chief academic officer, and so I think the primary responsibility is always maintaining the quality of the institution and enhancing and sustaining the quality of the faculty and the quality of the students. That’s something that I’ve thought a lot about over the years, and it’s a great experience to be in a position where you can do something about it, where you can help and realize some of these ambitions. That’s going to be a major focus of mine—building faculty and strategies of recruitment. Do you recruit to replace faculties and to meet needs? Do you recruit more opportunistically? We’re always kind of going between those two poles, and there’s no one way to do it that’s going to be perfect. But that kind of decision making and thinking is something that a provost helps manage, to some degree, among the deans, among the chairs, among the faculty. That’s a fun kind of activity to me. I’m not sure it would make everybody excited, but it does excite me.
Q. How does a university balance its educational and research mission with its responsibilities to public policy and the world at large?
Here’s the defense for basic research and basic scholarship: It’s from the basic discoveries that many practical ideas and applications flow, so you always need a commitment to basic science and to basic scholarship across the board, because that is often where magnificent things come from. The greatest books in the world and the greatest discoveries in the last number of decades come that way. Yet, there is another route to great discovery, too, which is to take on a problem in the real world, and we wrestle with it scientifically or in a very scholarly way to try to deepen one’s understanding of what’s behind it. That, too, can lead to very important insights that further our understanding and further the creation of knowledge. As an academic leader, both of those things are important to me. I’m not somebody who would affiliate only with one. I would like to see an institution pursue both of them. But I think that’s what academic leadership does—to read the situation as best you can and see what’s needed. There are places where practical focus would be incredibly rejuvenating and would energize people, scholars and scientists. And there are other cases where you’ve gone too far in a practical direction, where work may be making too narrow a contribution by solving just one particular problem and it’s not really contributing to basic understanding and moving basic knowledge forward. I see myself—I don’t know if a referee is the right analogy—but maybe as a conductor, making arguments and helping people make adjustments on where they can have the most impact and be the most constructive.
Q. Tell us about your research specialty.
I’ve had three major research involvements in my career: One is very basic research on the nature of the self and self-defensive processes. Another is very practical on a social-psychological model of alcohol addiction. And the third, on stereotype threat, started out as a very practical involvement, and sometime over the last 20 years, it’s gotten to be basic science that has public policy implications. It started by trying to understand a practical problem. I was on a retention and recruitment committee at the University of Michigan, and I saw a pattern of data for white students and black students; they had exactly the same scores and test scores, yet the black students, for some reason, were getting lower grades at Michigan. That was a puzzle with important practical implications to solve, and I started in with that. It turns out to be not something just true of Michigan but absolutely universal in American society, which made it an even more important problem to focus on. And we tried to craft different ideas to explain it and different research to unearth what was behind it. Stereotype threat is being in a situation or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one of your identities is relevant. As soon as that happens, you know that other people could see you, judge you and treat you stereotypically. And if you care about what you’re doing, if that thing is important to you in some way, the prospect of being reduced to a stereotype in that situation can be upsetting and disturbing, and it can interfere with your functioning.
Q. Your upcoming book on stereotype threat is called Whistling Vivaldi. Where does the title come from?
It comes from a perfect example of stereotype threat, from a story by Brent Staples, an African American editorialist for The New York Times, in his own book. He describes going to graduate school at the University of Chicago, and he’s walking down the streets of Hyde Park dressed like a student, and lo and behold, he notices that the whites he comes near get a little nervous and try to avoid him. He’s in a situation, doing something where he could be seen in terms of a negative stereotype about his race, that he is in some way a menacing, dangerous black male, and people are responding to him this way. So what he discovers is that if he walks down the street and whistles Vivaldi or The Beatles, he won’t be seen that way because it punctures the stereotype for these people. It’s a story that holds in it the mechanism of stereotype threat and illustrates that.
Q. That brings us back to the topic of diversity.
All of my research, in some way or another, bears on the value of diversity in participation in American society. It’s an incredibly important life mission of mine and part of my character. I’m always wending my way toward a support for that, and for facilitating that in American society. Full participation—that’s what I think of when I think of the idea of diversity. And among the Ivies, Columbia, I am proud to say, has the most diverse student body of all of them. I don’t want to suggest that because Columbia’s so strong in this dimension now that it has no challenges; it does. We always do. There are still places where it can improve graduate schools, faculty and the like. Those are still challenges that I would like to add my expertise and energies to improving.
Four Columbia faculty were awarded Sloan Research Fellowships by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. They are Mark Churchland, assistant professor of neuroscience; Wei Min, assistant professor of chemistry; Simha Sethumadhavan, associate professor of computer science; and Wei Zhang, assistant professor of mathematics.
Alondra Nelson, associate professor of sociology, won the 2012 book award from the Association for Humanist Sociology for Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination.