A Commitment to an Antiracist Columbia

As President Bollinger ends his tenure at the University, he leaves behind a roadmap that emphasizes diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Adina Berrios Brooks, Jennifer Leach, and Vina Tran
May 23, 2023

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the racial reckoning that followed, Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger announced Columbia’s Commitment to Antiracism, reasserting the University’s ongoing mission to address the entrenched and brutal consequences of racism in the U.S. His message provided an opportunity to emphasize the University’s Fourth Purpose, which codifies Columbia’s responsibility to improve society through research, teaching, service, and impact.

Bollinger tapped Executive Vice President and Senior Vice Provost Dennis Mitchell to lead a University-wide review in eight key areas: inclusive public safety; the impact of racism in communities surrounding campus; symbols and representations on campus; student inclusion and belonging; faculty diversity; staff experience; initiatives at our schools and institutes; and a CUIMC task force to address structural racism in health and healthcare

In a celebration to honor Bollinger’s legacy, Mitchell credited Bollinger’s “visible, bold leadership” that established “the space for us to create a more inclusive campus.” Mitchell, who will assume the role as interim provost this July, is eager to continue this work. “In calling for Columbia to become an antiracist institution,” Mitchell said, “Lee asked us to critically examine the enduring legacy of racism to improve the climate for faculty, students, and staff.”

These initiatives complement the array of efforts happening across the University; its schools, centers, and institutes; and the neighborhood to promote and enhance inclusion and belonging, furthering Columbia’s commitment to being an antiracist institution.

Accelerated Faculty Diversity Efforts

“Black Joy” panel moderator Courtney Cogburn (far left) with panelists Natasha Johnson, Marissa Thompson, Charles Lea, and Nkemka Anyiwo. Credit: Adina Berrios Brooks

Since 2005, Columbia has invested $185 million to diversify its faculty. This is the largest public commitment made by an Ivy League institution to support recruitment and development. Over the last three years, the University has added new initiatives and programs despite hiring freezes. These efforts include:

  • The Initiative to Support Race and Racism Scholarship advances the recruitment of faculty members engaged in race and racism scholarship. This program will ultimately support the recruitment of 15 faculty members in African American and African Diaspora Studies, anthropology, history, political science, psychology, religion, social work, sociology, and visual arts.
  • The Research Support to Accelerate STEM Cluster Hiring provides research funding to hire faculty who are underrepresented in STEM fields.
  • Enhancements to Target of Opportunity hiring of Black, Latinx, and other historically underrepresented tenured or tenure-track faculty. These efforts include the faculty diversity efforts at CUIMC that resulted in increased leadership representation from groups underrepresented in healthcare.

In fall 2002, Columbia’s tenure and tenure-track faculty was 25% women, today that proportion is 35%. The proportion of Black, Latinx, and Native faculty has doubled from 5% to 10%. For the last three years more than 50% of new hires have been women, and in 2021 and 2022, the proportion of Black, Latinx, and Native hires was over 26%.

A Community Advisory Council

In March 2022, President Bollinger announced the creation of a Community Advisory Council to expand and deepen relations among all facets of the University and the communities surrounding its three Manhattan campuses.

The council’s mandate is to support and increase community programs through partnerships across the University and with community leaders and organizations in Harlem and Upper Manhattan. These partners include small businesses, health providers, nonprofit organizations, faith-based institutions, schools and other educational entities, and affordable housing ventures that contribute to the well-being of community residents.

The council is chaired by Melissa Begg, dean of the Columbia School of Social Work; Wafaa El-Sadr, Columbia University professor and the Dr. Mathilde Krim-amfAR Chair of Global Health at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, director of ICAP at Columbia University, and executive vice president for Columbia Global; Rafael A. Lantigua, director of the office of community service programs, associate dean for community service and professor of medicine at CUIMC; and Olajide A. Williams, professor and chief of staff of the department of neurology at CUIMC and co-director of the Columbia Wellness Center.

The Inclusive Public Safety Advisory Committee

On January 31, 2022, President Bollinger announced the launch of the Inclusive Public Safety Advisory Committee, which is co-chaired by Melissa Begg, dean of the School of Social Work and professor of social work and biostatistics and Josef Sorett, dean of Columbia College, vice president for undergraduate education, and professor of religion and of African American and African diaspora studies.

The committee’s charge is to provide guidance to Public Safety colleagues to improve the overall campus climate. The committee meets with Public Safety representatives to relay important issues and makes recommendations that support inclusion and belonging on Columbia’s campuses. Public Safety works with the advisory committee to discuss campus climate and ensure that proposed policy and practice changes align with the University’s commitments to community safety and antiracism.

Student-Focused Antiracist Initiatives and Programs at Columbia

University Life leads many student-facing and University-wide efforts to promote inclusion and further Columbia’s commitment to becoming an antiracist institution. Founded in 2015 by President Bollinger, this division focuses on enhancing the quality of life for all Columbia students. From the onset, the values of inclusion and belonging have guided its priorities, programs, and resources. For example, the Awakening Our Democracy event series provides the Columbia community with opportunities to explore issues such as the legal and moral framework of Affirmative Action through the lens of equity, diversity, and justice.

In 2020, University Life further advanced its work on inclusion and belonging, expanding  the Community Citizenship Initiative (CCI), which invites all first-year students to think critically about topics such as bias, racism, and their role in fostering an inclusive community at Columbia. Through CCI, students deepen their knowledge of structural inequality, resilience, and advocacy and gain skills to make positive change during their time at Columbia and beyond. In addition, University Life introduced the Social Justice Mini-Grant Program, which provides support for student-led projects that bring awareness to inequities including racial, economic, and education disparities.

Beyond these new efforts, University Life has continued its Inclusion and Belonging Initiative with the following programs: the Graduate Initiative for Inclusion & Engagement, which provides opportunities for community-building for students from historically marginalized communities; the University-wide process for reporting bias incidents; and Campus Conversations, which provides spaces for students to engage in dialogue across differences.

Addressing Structural Racism in Health and the Health Sciences at CUIMC

Report Cover: Roadmap for Antiracism in Health Care and the Health Sciences: A Report from the Columbia University Irving Medical Center Task Force for Addressing Structural Racism

In July 2020, the four CUIMC deans appointed a representative task force focused on actions to eliminate racism from all aspects of their work. The task force — led by Rafael A. Lantigua, Anne L. Taylor, and Olajide A. Williams — consisted of more than 100 faculty, staff, and students across the four health sciences schools, as well as partners from NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. The group’s charge was to develop recommendations to address structural racism in healthcare and the health sciences. Their work was organized in six key domains:

  1. Faculty recruitment, retention, advancement, and leadership
  2. Education, training, and curricular change
  3. Health care disparities, social justice, and solutions research
  4. Clinical care
  5. Community and public service
  6. Civility and professionalism

Members convened for a series of discussions, meetings, and focus group sessions throughout the summer and fall of 2020, and presented CUIMC Roadmap for Antiracism in Healthcare and Health Sciences to the CUIMC community in November 2020. Implementation began in January 2021.

Progress around the recommendations is tracked by a CUIMC-wide implementation committee of faculty, staff, and students. Additionally, each school has developed—and continues to develop—antiracism plans specific to their disciplines. (More information about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at CUIMC can be found here.) 

President’s Commission on the History of Race and Racism at Columbia University

On December 1, 2022, Bollinger announced the creation of the President’s Commission on the History of Race and Racism at Columbia University. Led by Ira I. Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of political science and history and deputy director of Columbia World Projects, and Mabel O. Wilson, George Rupp Professor of architecture, planning and preservation, professor in African American and African diasporic studies, and director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies, this body will assess and establish guidelines for existing and future symbols and representations at Columbia, reviewing their historical context and their relationship to racism. This work is guided by commitments to historical accuracy and to an inclusive campus environment.

Establishing this commission was the first of several recommendations of the working group. Others included creating guidelines for assessing existing symbols and for commissioning new ones; establishing an open forum to discuss the physical campus and its symbols, expanding the Columbia University and Slavery project, and posting historical context, including any ties to race and racism, in campus buildings, with an emphasis on residence halls.

Enhancing Staff Experience

Columbia’s employees are a vital part of the Columbia community and play a key role in advancing our shared vision of an antiracist Columbia. University leadership convened a Staff Experience Working Group to relay staff concerns and recommendations about the working environment at Columbia. Initial feedback, derived from myriad stakeholders and colleagues across the University, made it clear that staff experience should be a priority. Bollinger’s chief of staff Susan Glancy began a centrally resourced effort to assess and improve the sense of belonging among Columbia’s staff. The University’s mission statement was also amended to include a reference to staff—a symbolic but important change that recognizes the value employees bring to the institution.