Bollinger Commends the Mailman School of Public Health’s Leadership During the Pandemic

Lee C. Bollinger
November 10, 2020

“From the President” is a new column featuring Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger’s speeches and writings on a variety of subjects.

On October 26, 2020, in wide-ranging remarks to the Board of Advisors of the Mailman School of Public Health, President Lee C. Bollinger commended Mailman’s response to the global pandemic, and noted that the school served as a model for solving world problems in a university setting. 

“This is a moment in which the school shines because the whole world is looking to public health for help in how to deal with this enormous crisis,” he said. “I think the same is true with other issues that of course are extremely important. Whether it’s climate change or issues of race in America or globalization and how to think about our position in a larger world.”

Schools like Mailman and the public health profession “do what it is that a university is ideally expected to do.”

Attacks on Expertise

In his address, President Bollinger spoke about the ongoing attacks on expertise and how they could drift into authoritarianism if society is not vigilant.

We are “at a moment in history, which I think is the most fraught in my lifetime for the potential to drift into authoritarianism. Many years ago when I was studying political theory I remember vividly reading that one of the first signs of a descent into totalitarianism, authoritarianism, autocratic types of societies and leadership, is a lack of respect—a loss of respect, a decline in respect—for expertise,” Bollinger said.  

Those attacks can be made on art, law, science, public policy, he continued. “Almost everything we take for granted as composing modern life are built on thousands and thousands of people who have developed deep expertise in areas that they then share with the wider world. To attack that, to ridicule it, to make it seem what it’s not, is to undermine constitutional democracy, and all that is decent, good society.”

A 'Fourth Purpose' for Universities

President Bollinger also discussed the role of the university in society and the need for institutes of higher education to have what he calls a “fourth purpose” that has an impact on the world and interacts with it for the greater good.

“There is both a yearning on the part of people within universities to share their knowledge and a need in the world for what universities can do,” he said. “We’re not think tanks, we’re not for-profit, religious, or governmental organizations, we’re scholarly institutions and that has a lot of benefits and merit to what we do and what we can contribute to the world.”

The New Columbia Climate School

In closing, President Bollinger spoke of the new Columbia Climate School and how it serves as an example of the fourth purpose.

“Schools across Columbia have recognized that more intellectual resources should be devoted to the study of climate and its effects, and I know that this is especially true at our School of Public Health.”

He called Mailman “the closest analogy” to the Climate School. “Some hundred years ago people must have said, ‘You know, we’re focused on curing disease but we’re not so focused on the issues of public policy, health practices, the way that people organize their lives around health. We need expertise on this that’s not being provided by medical schools.’”

The Climate School can and should meet this challenge, Bollinger said. “It’s now been approved and it’s on its way, and it is something that we’ll be setting up in the next several years.”

More From the President

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