Faculty Q&A: Nicholas B. Dirks

Interview by Bridget O'Brian 

A longtime devotee of interdisciplinary study and research, Nicholas B. Dirks relishes finding new ways to bring disparate fields and factions closer together. While a professor at the University of Michigan, he held a joint appointment with the anthropology and history departments and created an interdepartmental Ph.D. program in the two disciplines. After becoming chair of Columbia’s anthropology department in 1997, he made it broadly interdisciplinary.

Since becoming vice president for Arts and Sciences and dean of the faculty at Columbia in 2004, Dirks has taken a similar approach, making connections within the University and its many schools and alumni. That’s no small challenge, considering he is responsible for the academic administration and direction of 29 departments, some 40 interdisciplinary research centers and institutes as well as six schools (Columbia College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Schools of the Arts, International and Public Affairs, General Studies and Continuing Education.)

Nicholas B. Dirks [Image credit: Eileen Barroso / Columbia University]
Nicholas B. Dirks
Image credit: Eileen Barroso / Columbia University

Dirks’ efforts as an administrator are informed in great part by his own scholarly accomplishments. A noted expert on India and its culture, Dirks is himself a former Guggenheim Fellow, MacArthur Fellow and Fulbright Scholar; in 2002 he received a prize that has special meaning on Columbia’s campus, the Lionel Trilling Award for Best Book for his Castes of Mind. Fittingly, his next book is about the early days of interdisciplinary research.

Q. Where does the tradition of arts and sciences come from?

The “arts and sciences,” as a general term, grew out of the development of secular undergraduate education in America in the 19th century, and stemmed from a growing sense that undergraduates had to study classical texts and traditions, along with scientific principles, in order to be informed and cultivated citizens. The idea was to create a model citizen rather than to impart specialized skills or knowledge.

But in the late 19th century, as the first research institutions were formed—Columbia was among the first to provide graduate and some professional education—a tension grew between the ideal of a general education and specialized or vocational training. This debate became quite heated in the 1880s and continues today.

Q. How did that movement play out at Columbia?

Columbia started out as the classical education that male students in the 19th century were given in order to make them into well-rounded citizens. Even after Columbia’s emergence as a leading graduate research and professional university, the College continued as a largely autonomous institution. The faculties of the College and the graduate school were independent for many years, though now most faculty are jointly appointed. For years, many faculty saw a divide between the two, and some notable faculty, like Lionel Trilling, taught only in the College, feeling that the chasm between the two pursuits could not be easily bridged. Many faculty who taught primarily in the College saw themselves as champions of general education—specifically Columbia’s signature Core Curriculum, which dates back to 1919—rather than the specialized training that was the rationale for graduate education at American research universities.

With the growing emphasis on specialized knowledge and vocational training, this divide continued institutionally at Columbia long after the debate seemed to have been settled. The Arts and Sciences as an administrative unit was created in 1982, though first only as a construct. It was not until 1993 that a unified Faculty of the Arts and Sciences was voted into existence, against some concern that it would undermine the autonomy and centrality of the College. And so it seemed natural to some faculty that there would be tension between the office of the vice president for Arts and Sciences (who also became dean of the faculty after 1993) and the office of the dean of the College.

Q. Is that what happened?

When I first came here in 1997—a time of marked tension between the College and the Arts and Sciences—I was struck by how Columbia had institutionalized this great debate, exacerbating the sense that the aims of general education fit uncomfortably alongside those of a research university. Most universities decided you could do both and each would support the other—that undergraduates could have a liberal arts education in a university where faculty could be teachers and cutting-edge researchers, hoping that this combination would draw students into the excitement of original research in the library or the laboratory.

Q. What are your priorities as dean/vice president?

I’ve been repositioning the relationship of the College and the Arts and Sciences so that contradictions between specialized research and general education have happier resolutions. This collaboration is critical to the survival of the Arts and Sciences, which is more than just a collection of departments. It is the recognition of the interdependency of knowledge—the relationship of the moral as well as the material components of the world, as well as the connection between the cultivation of the imagination and the search for truth—and it sits at the very center of the mission of the university in America. It prospers only when you combine the best of undergraduate teaching with the kind of investigation and inquiry that thrives in a research university. The relationship that Austin Quigley and I have worked so hard to build will be enshrined in the new institutional structure; when Michele Moody-Adams becomes both dean of the College and vice president for undergraduate education, she will be a full-fledged member of Arts and Sciences and the College.

Q. What other changes can be expected going forward?

Most of the disciplines that constitute the major departments and organizational structures of universities were established in the late 19th century. These disciplines included philosophy and psychology, government and economics, physics and chemistry, anthropology and comparative literature. The disciplines soon took on professional identities, organizing the training of graduate students, recruiting of faculty and mounting of the curriculum.

As a result, the disciplines secured a great deal of control and have seen themselves as largely autonomous. Over the last 20 years, there have been repeated calls for new kinds of interdisciplinary knowledge. But even when interdisciplinary movements have created opportunities for innovation and discovery, they have often failed to change the fundamental structures of teaching and hiring, on occasion inspiring backlash.

There is, nevertheless, widespread recognition of the importance of interdisciplinary research and teaching. A good example is the design of the new Northwest Corner Building on the Morningside campus, which was motivated by our commitment to bring chemists, physicists, biologists, engineers and others into closer working proximity, breaking down spatial as well as intellectual barriers. Whole areas of science, from nanoscience to structural biology, will benefit from the new organization of knowledge, even as we work through the issues that confront an institution when departments manage laboratories in different ways.

Q. You have a long history in interdisciplinary collaborations. How did that start?

I was trained not just in history but in area studies and anthropology. At the University of Michigan, I established a joint Ph.D. program in anthropology and history to expand the normal forms of training and teaching that were part of the inherited departmental structure, though I tried to preserve the role of disciplines in providing a knowledge base for innovation and experimentation.

Q. How does this jibe with your own research?

I’ve had a terrific time recently with a new research project on the important role of World War II in the creation of interdisciplinary studies. When the war started, [President Franklin] Roosevelt (LAW’1907) realized that the U.S. was vastly deficient in knowledge about global conditions and had nothing resembling an international intelligence agency. In 1941, he asked William Donovan (CC’1905, LAW’1908) to set up the Office of Strategic Service (OSS). One of Donovan’s ideas was to create a research and analysis branch to bring in scholars to compile and coordinate information about the various parts of the world. He originally recruited people by disciplines—economics, history and linguistics—but it was soon pretty clear this wasn’t working, so he set up new regional divisions to provide usable knowledge for military information and strategic policy development. There was an India desk and a Far East desk, as well as desks for Europe, Africa and Latin America. He hired distinguished professors from the Ivy League who were asked to create interdisciplinary teams. After the war, many of them took this approach back to their universities.

My own particular research centers on India. The head of the OSS South Asia desk was W. Norman Brown, a Sanskrit scholar. After the war, he returned to the University of Pennsylvania, where he created the first regional studies department for South Asia, hiring scholars from the India desk in Washington. I have been surprised to learn the extent to which University programs were influenced by the interdisciplinary climate created by World War II.

Q. What is the role of art and sciences at Columbia?

In my view, the Arts and Sciences have thrived at Columbia not just because of the history of American higher education, but because Columbia, and New York, have been at the center of our intellectual history, and because this great institution managed to preserve a premier college and a major research university in this amazing global city—and by implication the best of the liberal arts as well as the most advanced specialized knowledge. And this is why I continue to be fascinated by my work in administration, even as I feel extraordinary confidence that the new relationship between the College and the Arts and Sciences will not only propel us into further greatness, but set a model for other leading institutions of higher education.

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