James Valentini has been Dean of Columbia College for four years. Before then, he taught in the Chemistry Department, most notably Gen Chem. His tenure began inauspiciously amidst the resignation of Professor Michele Moody-Adams over questions of the university’s commitment to undergraduate education. Since then, Dean Valentini has had a minimal and inoffensive presence on campus. On a sunny day in March, Daniel Stone and Hallie Nell Swanson trudged up the Hamilton steps to join him in his office. Also present was Sydney Gross, Columbia College’s Director of Communications.
Daniel Stone: Do you remember your college's Dean?
James J. Valentini: No, I don't know who the dean was. It's interesting, I remember who the president was, though I never met the president—well I saw the president, but I never talked to him. But for whatever reason, I don't remember who it was.
DS: How, then, do you come to have an impression of what a dean looks like or does?
JJV: So that's interesting. When I was teaching Gen. Chem, I got to know a lot of students, and they had certain attitudes about what a professor looks like, what a professor's background is, and I realized my background wasn't what they expected. So I started class by giving a two or three minute bio. Then I'd say to the class, “now would you send me your bios by email.” And about two thirds of the class (people like to talk about themselves) would send me their bios, and I learned a lot about the class that way because people would sometimes write two or three pages about their lives. But they didn't know how you came to be a professor. I didn't really know how you got to be a dean. I've known lots of deans because I've been at a university for 25 years now, but I never really thought about it in terms of having a life plan: someday I want to be dean.
I became dean under unusual circumstances. My predecessor resigned suddenly, just before the beginning of the academic year, and the resignation was problematic in that it was the beginning of the year. President Bollinger asked me to be the dean Friday September 2nd at 1 o'clock 2011, and I became dean Friday September 2nd at 4 o’clock 2011. So I didn't have a lot of time to think about it.
And I sort of knew what a dean did, but not really in detail. And I did it because the president asked, and they needed a dean, and I love Columbia. But I really wasn't sure what I was getting into. I had been on every committee the college has that a faculty member can be on—some of them twice—so I had some sense. But not really.
DS: So how do you learn how to be a dean?
JJV: You learn by doing it. There was a good preparation, I just didn't know it was a good preparation. I had been chair of the chemistry department. It's not the same as being dean, but it does have responsibility, and I had also been director of undergraduate studies. And the combination of those two has in it really the essential elements of being dean. One because you're being an administrator, guide, leader, of an academic enterprise, but at the same time that academics enterprise focuses on students, so that your interaction with students is really important. So I found that being dean is just a combination of being department chair and director of undergraduate studies. It's just that the scale is bigger.
I know lots more students now than I ever did in chemistry. But I don't know any individual student as well as I did the fifty or sixty chemistry majors who I knew practically everything about. I don't know that about 4,500 students. So the scale of the department and of the college is very different, but it's similar.
Hallie Nell Swanson: Do you also feel there is a relationship between the academic discipline you've come from and the way you approach being dean?
JJV: I have no doubt there is, because the academic discipline you're in develops in you a certain way of approaching the world, a certain way of thinking, a certain way of processing. I think it's most evident if I try to step out of myself and look at myself as dean. It's very quantitative, very analytical. When we discuss what to do, I always want to ask what's the reason why, what's the evidence we have to support wanting to do this. It's very outcome oriented. Experiments have outcomes—you're aiming for an outcome. It's quantitative and analytical in that sense.
That's the part that chemistry really contributes to, but the part that chemistry doesn't contribute to is the biggest part, which is dealing with people. That is more based on everyday common experience I have had, maybe as director undergraduate studies chair. I've worked a lot of places in my life, and have a lot of experience. But dealing with people, chemistry doesn’t specifically prepare you for that. Maybe if you had a phd in psychology that would be better.
What are your majors?
DS: History and Economics.
HNS: Comp Lit.
JJV: They're probably better preparation for being a dean than a scientist—I probably shouldn't say that. I had a conversation last night with Austin Quigley, as I do frequently, who was the dean for many years until 2009. And his specialty is drama, Pinter in particular. And you learn a lot about human nature by doing that, you don't learn as much about human nature in a chem lab.
DS: As a dean, do you ever think of yourself in terms of your predecessors?
I think of myself in terms of predecessors in at least two different ways. One, I feel a little intimidated by their success, and two, challenged to do as well as I can. There's a real history of Columbia College. I think it's a really great college. The first thing I wrote as dean was in a letter to students: “Welcome to the greatest College, in the greatest University, in the greatest city in the world.”" I actually believe that, I believed it then and I believe it now. I think there's a lot to live up to when you say that. When you say this place is really great. When you wake up every day you have to say, not only do I have to preserve what is great about it, but I have to make it better. We feel good about what we've done, but how can we make it even better.
DS: But do you ever look back and say, this is what I remember of Austin Quigley and now...?
JJV: Almost never.
HNS: Do you ever think of yourself as someone in a succession of deans?
JJV: I don't really look back and say, "Some time that Austin was dean" as a reference point, and the only reason—I have great admiration for Austin, he was a phenomenally successful dean—is that the world's different, the College is different, the University is different now than it was when he was dean, and so the way he engaged with things isn't the way we need to engage with them today. Also, he's a different person.
I do think a lot about—people use the word legacy, I don't really like the word. But I would like to leave something to the next dean and the one after that that persists it's something about which we make ourselves even better. and it will last and I think a lot about what can we do to build something that will persist even if nobody working with me now—Sydney and everyone else—went onto some other job. All the ten people who report to me directly receive. Suppose they all went to other jobs that we would keep going in a really productive direction. And maybe even if the next dean (you don't know how capable any particular person is going to be) even if maybe we made a poor choice and it wasn't such a capable dean, we'd still keep going. And that's what I really aim for—something that's not so dependent on who's here.
HNS: Kind of an institutional memory?
Yeah—it's well put. But it's sort of more than that, an institutional culture, a way that is about us in collection, that that culture persists even when the people change. That there’s a way of looking at our jobs, looking at our role in the university, looking at our obligation to students, looking at our obligation to faculty, and saying this is who we are, and even if the people who are dean and other positions change this is still who we all.
DS: It sounds like what you're getting at is there is some sort of Colombian identity?
JJV: Yeah—and I think there really is. So I asked (every school has a mission statement), so we used to have a mission statement that was like two pages long on our website that I think could have applied to practically any place on earth. And I'm a chemist, I don’t know anything about writing mission statements, so what did I do? I went to an alum who’s class of 1959 who was the chairman of BBDO, which is one of the world’s most successful, largest marketing and advertising firms, and I said to him, "Alan, would you write for us a mission statement?" and he said sure. And he came in and he talked to a lot of people, staff, students, and he wrote a two paragraph mission statement which is on the website now. That is part of our identity—it's an expression of our identity and who we are and what's important to us in two paragraphs.
DS: Do you think that sort of makes it a corporate thing?
JJV: You know, it's natural for people to say that, because if you go outside [the university] to [seek help from] someone who's in the corporate world, they [students] will say now you're being corporate. Well, the college is an enterprise not a business. But it's an enterprise, and we're trying to achieve an objective—the objective doesn't involve money and we don't have a product, but in a way we do I think. On Class Day every year, 1100 or so students will walk off campus. That's our product. And I said this at Class Day one year, that we don't make things but we help people make themselves, and we clearly have a conception of how we want to do that. And that's our mission. And I know to some people that sounds corporate, but to me that's a good thing—it's not trying to get anyone to buy anything. It's a statement of who you are, and that's important to you. And if you read our mission statement online, then you can tell me what you think of it.
JJV: And I would be really interested in what you think about it.
HNS: It's sometimes hard to think of Columbia College as having a unique identity, because it's actually rare you'll get all Columbia College students in one room. That’s actually something you hear about all the time: during NSOP you hear all about four undergraduate colleges, you're going to working together, you're going to be studying together...
JJV: Yeah yeah yeah
HNS: So when you're thinking about the identity of the College as opposed to the University, what does the college specifically mean to you? What do you think makes it the greatest college in the greatest city?
JJV: It is true. I know at NSOP we talk about four undergraduate schools, and that's one of the great things about Columbia. It expands the diversity to have all four schools, because every school has a slightly different population of students. Ss you probably know, my middle son is a student in General Studies, he was a marine, he is a marine. GS has an identity—a school for nontraditional students. It has lots of military vets in it. Barnard has its own identity. I think Columbia College has an identity that is incorporated in the mission statement that revolves around diversity, it revolves around our location in New York City, and it revolves around the Core Curriculum. My son is going to Paris this summer, he's going to take Art Hum and Music Hum in Paris. Okay great, but he's not taking the whole Core Curriculum, and his experience in General Studies is not the same. It's a fully residential experience and students completely share a common curriculum. I know engineers take part of it, and GS students take part of it, but the Core is a part of our identity, being in New York is part of our identity, diversity is part of our identity. I think those are the things that distinguish us.
DS: But don't you think having those other schools dilutes that a little bit?
JJV: No actually, I don't. This is kind of like e pluribus unum in some ways. So I think it's really great that there are students like my son and many others who are in class. They bring a different perspective. My son was in the marine corps for 4 years, he spent eight months in Afghanistan, and he's 25 years old. When he's in a class, he brings a different perspective to class. Barnard students, who are chosen in a different selection process for different reasons and a different culture—they bring something to class. Engineering students and college students are similar—one admissions office, one financial aid policy, but engineering students really are somewhat different from college students, which is why every year we have students who want to transfer from engineering to the College or vice versa (mostly from engineering to the College, but some from the College to engineering).
I don't think that it dilutes it any more than having 17 schools at Columbia does. I think it expands the range of opportunities. For science students, for example, having engineering school here means more opportunity for science students to do research. Because we have chem majors who are doing research with engineering faculty, we have engineering students doing research with chemistry faculty. Having SIPA, Law School, Journalism multiply the opportunities you have as a student. I don't think they dilute the Columbia College experience, but maybe they do from your perspective.
DS: You might think that someone has less of an "allegiance" to the college than the university then.
JJV: So I don't think there's any reason why you can't have allegiance to both. If you walk over to 113th Street and you enter what's called the Alumni Center, it has etched on the glass entry the name of every school at Columbia, and the year they were founded. I think every alumnus and alumna in this university identifies primarily and first with the school they went to. If you go to B-School, Law School, GS, College, that's your first thing. It is a part of a University, but you can belong to two things. I grew up in Ohio, I was a resident of Ohio but also of the United States of America. I could be both of those things simultaneously. I think you can be a Columbia College alum and a Columbia University Alum at the same time.
HNS: We were in a meeting the other day for the B&W and a girl introduced herself as ‘a freshman in the college...Barnard college.’ I think for me the thing with ‘the college’ is that I don’t know how to define it except in terms of, well, we’re not this other funky one which has something a bit different going on. We’re just the straight, regular one.
JJV: We are the true, traditional liberal arts college here. Barnard is a true traditional women’s college at Columbia and engineering is a traditional engineering college. General Studies is an institution for nontraditional students. I think it may be—the way you’re describing it I can see, it’s more generic, because there are so many. Princeton has one, Harvard has one, there’s Yale College, Harvard College, Princeton is a college that calls itself a university—I mean it is, but it only has two graduate professional schools instead of the 13 or 14 that we have. Do you have trouble formulating what you think of as your identity as a Columbia College student? I’m not putting you on the spot.
HNS: I think perhaps that’s what I’m getting at, that it’s hard to come up with a positive definition—positive not in terms of values, but defining on its own terms as opposed to in negatives.
JJV: I’m going to ask you two guys a question, you can help me. Have either of you read the mission statement on the website? This mission statement wouldn’t have been there when you applied, it’s recent. I have homework for you, I’d like each of you to write a mission statement for CC, which is in a way of saying, what’s the identity of Columbia College to you. Send it to Sydney. It’s not a lot of work, the one that Alan wrote is only two paragraphs long. Then I want you to go look at the one online. This is not a test, I’m actually curious what you would write.
DS: I like to read through the archives, and if you look at the Spectator from like 1930, they do a feature where they describe the college man of that year. It’ll be a sort of little ballad of what united the people in that year, and they’ll talk about the common freshman experiences and all these things. And I think if you went back in time it would be very easy to say this is what a Columbia College man looked like and is, and these are the things that make them what it is.
JJV: I don’t know what size the college was in the ‘30s. I’m guessing pretty small.
DS: About 700 students. No, 400 at that point, maybe.
JJV: I know what it was like in the 60s cause I talk to people or alums of the 60s. We do have an alum, the oldest living alum of CC is a graduate of the class of 1932. I don’t know what size it is. But—I won’t say it was homogenous, that’s a very extreme word—but it didn’t have the diversity, and it only had guys in it after all. So if you ask me the question, could you answer the question, what is a CC student, I couldn’t give you an answer. Do you two consider yourselves...the same?
HNS: Well this was actually one of our questions—how would you describe a CC student, and can you describe a CC student?
JJV: So I think I can describe certain common characteristics that I think CC students share, but I can’t imagine—it’s inconceivable to me—that we would write anything at the end of the year about a typical CC student. I think CC students are intellectually curious, I think this is from my experience with you. This are the descriptors I would have for my interactions with hundreds, maybe now thousands of students, from even before I was dean. Intellectually curious, aggressive in the best sense. I don’t mean aggressive in the pushy sense. Aggressive, wanting to achieve, wanting to learn, wanting to know. Engaged, socially aware, ambitious in the best sense. I think those are the characteristics of a CC student. Now does every CC student display those? I think to at least some extent, yes. Would any particular CC student identify himself or herself that way? Maybe not. The question is, how will you identify yourself 10 or 20 years from now. I think this is how alumni identify themselves more than how current college students do, but alumni have spent a lot of time thinking about their lives and have had a lot of experience. What adjectives would you apply to yourself?
HNS: Oh, God.
JJV: You don’t have to tell me now, you don’t have to tell me at all. But write to me later and tell me which adjectives you would apply to yourselves and which adjectives you would apply to your friends. And tell me whether the adjectives I just used ring true to you.
HNS: I mean do you ever find that when you’re thinking about the students that you represent...how do you get a cross-section of the student body?
JJV: Oh, that’s really hard. That part is really hard. I say to students, every one of you was admitted as an individual because of a unique life experience and narrative you’ve had. And it’s really true. We’re just about to finish admissions this year. Every single student is admitted for a specific, unique set of reasons about them. In fact, at Orientation sometimes I say this to students, I have something to tell you that’s gonna sound like bad news but it’s actually good news. And I say, you’re different. No one wants to be different. I said, that sounds bad but it’s good, because if you weren’t different you wouldn’t have been admitted. Each of you was admitted for a unique story, so characterizing someone—OK, like getting a representative sample, is really hard.
DS: What feeds your sense of these things though?
JJV: Just from talking to students.
DS: Who do you talk to, though?
JJV: I talked to a lot of students even before I became dean. In my life at Columbia, I’ve taught probably between 4 and 5 thousand students. How many of them did I know personally? Hmm, 20% maybe, maybe more. And I’ve talked to them over a long period of time. As dean now, I talk to a lot of students. Sometimes I run in to students on college walk and we just start talking, and I ask them about what they’re doing and what they think about. Now, but in an organized way, I have office hours. Do I have office hours today? Or tomorrow?
JJV: Today. I have office hours once a month, something like that, and students just drop in and talk. You get five minutes, ‘cause there’s a long line. I have Dine with Deantini once a month, that’s by lottery, students come in, about 10 or 12 students at lunchtime, I talk to them. I have regular meetings with Columbia College Student Council president and vice president, I have regular meetings with the CC students who are representatives in the university senate, there are some student groups I meet with, and now I have dinners about once a month on Sunday night in a residence hall, I started that last fall, the last one I had was two three weeks ago in McBain, I talked to sophomores in McBain. Sometimes it’s just casual, I just meet someone, what are you doing, you know, what’s going on, what’s of interest to you today? That’s how I learn things.
DS: What sorts of things do people talk about? I mean, for instance if a student council president comes and talks to you...
JJV: So when student council people talk to me, they come mostly when they come in that kind of official capacity, will talk about what are the action items, what’s going on in student council, what’s interesting to students, what do they want to propel as interests as their representative of students. The student senators will talk about what’s going on on the senate and what’s being approved, and what’s going on there. And I meet with the senators always in the week there’s a senate plenary meeting because I go to those, I’m a voting member of the senate, I want to know what the CC student senators think are the important issues that are going to come up, what’s their perspective on them. We have a discussion about that. When I meet students for Dine with Deantini, each time I’ll have something that I’ll usually ask them, so I’ll say, if you were meeting someone for the first time right now, imagine you don’t know anyone in the room—and most of them don’t know one another—what would you like to tell them in 2 sentences about yourself, what would you say. Because I’m interested in how they’ll say it. And one of the things people say is they’ll talk about their major. And then I’ll say why do you define yourself by your major? Why is that so important? And it’s just learning about how students think about themselves. If I see someone on college walk that I know, it’s just...how are you doing, what’s going on today, what’s interesting to you today. Or there’s some event that just happened—were you at this event? What did you think about it? There is a lot.
DS: Do you think it’s maybe harder to really understand how things are from when you talk to students because they’re so involved with their immediate experience, they lack a sense of detachment?
JJV: Oh, yes. The ability to stand back from your life and observe yourself is really difficult, and the younger you are the more difficult it is. I don’t mean that in any patronizing way, it’s just in my experience in life. To get a distance from yourself builds with experience. But if I listen to students talk, I can get a sense of them in a way that may be different from what they believe—what they imagine they’re communicating. I’m not a spy, but you get a sense of people from what they say that may be revealing something that isn’t what they’re meaning to communicate to you but it communicates other things. But it’s difficult. One of the things is, people talk about stress all the time and I’m still trying to figure it out, in a very exacting way. What are the real sources of stress and how do we address them?
DS: One thing I wanted to ask you about, sort of related to this, is do you think that the financial crisis has played a role in students talking about there being a stress culture at Columbia?
JJV: That’s a good question. That one’s harder for me to answer. Everyone believes it has made a contribution. I can’t say it hasn’t. What I lack is the experience of being dean from before 2008 and after 2008. I became dean in 2011, this has already happened. I talked to a lot of students before that, but I did talk to a lot of students in a different way. And I did not talk to a cross section of students—I talked to chem majors, and mbiochem majors, whose lives are in some way have less variability than I think kids in other majors, cause half of them are going to medical school, and almost half of them are going to graduate school, and there’s a small number who aren’t doing either, very small. And so I think that their views of the future, the way they view their future, is different, and a financial crisis may not have that much bearing on them, because grad school and med school aren’t so much affected by that.
HNS: Aside from the financial crisis, though, would you say that you’ve seen changes in university culture or the kinds of kids who are here from 2011 to now?
JJV: I think students feel a diminished sense of security about their futures now than they did when I first came to Columbia or even 10 years ago. I’m not sure of that, but that’s my observation, and I certainly do not believe I know the source of that but it does concern me. I think there’s just less sense of security about the future. It seems less determined. But I think you have as much or greater reason to feel secure about yourselves individually in the future as students did 10 years ago or 25 years ago, and I’d like you to feel that, but I think the best route I can have to that is...my telling you that isn’t going to make it any more compelling. Students will discount what the dean says, that’s just natural. This is why we want to have every CC student to have an alumni mentor, because who can tell you about your future? Someone who’s already had it. A Columbia College student from whatever period is gonna have their experience of, what did it mean in their lives to be a CC student? And I think that can give you a greater sense of security than anything else.
DS: I feel that when I said that, I sort of led you by saying in some ways that the professional future of a student goes hand in hand with their well being. And perhaps it was wrong of me to say that I should connect these things so much.
JJV: It’s a good question. Last night, CORE, the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs, had an event, they invited Arianna Huffington. And I was asked to introduce her and I got to talk her. She’s here talking about her new book, called Stride, and then there’s the colon, the third metric of...about success
HNS: I didn’t even know the first two. Money and health?
JJV: It’s success, well being, wisdom, something in the title. And I really liked her presentation because it was focusing on doing what you’re interested in doing. I mean we use the term follow your passion, but we use it so much that all its meaning has kind of drained out of it. I’d like students here to engage with being a student: ‘What am I intellectually interested in? What am I interested in that doesn’t involve classes that I want to do, right now, in this period of my life. And no thought whatsoever to what does it lead to after class day.
The John Jay awards we have every year, 5 Columbia College alumni are given an award for outstanding professional achievement. This year one of the awardees is Andrew Marlowe. Andrew Marlowe is the creator and writer of a TV series called Castle, it’s a detective series. He also wrote the screenplay for Air Force One and other screenplays. When he gave his award address—he also told me this when I talked to him before—he said, when I was at CC, some people were pre-law, some people were pre-medical, I was pre-unemployment. That’s how he described it. He wanted to be a writer. He didn’t know where that was going to go, but he wanted to be a writer and that’s what he wanted to do. I think you should do what you want to do. What’s interesting to you? What do you really like doing? And not think about anything else. I know that’s hard to do. I know that’s really hard to do. But that’s how I think you ought to engage with college.
DS: I think part of it is that class intersects with these things, so you have a very different bunch of people at Columbia. Many people here are quite privileged and can do certain things without fear of paying the rent and that sort of thing.
JJV: Yeah. So, one of the things I also say is we are preparing our students for a life that will last six decades after they graduate and we can’t anticipate the world that they’re going to encounter, but the one thing we do know is, that your success in that life depends on your ability to interact with other people. Diversity here to me means everyone is gonna interact with someone different, so people who come from families of real means are gonna be meeting people from Accident Maryland who grew up on a farm, or people like me, I grew up in a coal mining town in Appalachia, I didn’t know anyone who went to college. My father didn’t graduate from high school. We still have students at CC like that. Is it stressful in some ways to be a student from a background that is less advantaged financially? Well, yeah, in some ways. But life’s like that.
We want to support every student when they’re here, recognizing their individuality, but I want everyone to encounter different kinds of students. So you should encounter people whose family circumstances give them a lot more privilege than they have, but those students who have that privilege should recognize that there’s something valuable about everyone’s experience and money is not the only thing valuable in your experience.
HNS: We found out in an article this issue that practically nobody in CCSC is on financial aid. So I’m wondering if even if, as dean, obviously you have commitments to first generation low income students, for example, do you still find that it might be that they aren’t seeking you out to interact with you the same way that other students might be?
JJV: This is a concern, but in a way it’s a broader concern. I’ll go back, actually, to what I’ve said to people in advising, about how we need to in the future engage students, treat every student here as someone with a certain set of needs. You can have students come from ostensibly priviliged background but they have real challenges in some way. But they have a certain special set of needs. Every student should be engaged with as an individual. But that being said, yes. You have to be concerned with—the College as a whole is very diverse, but—and this gets back to representative group—is any group representative? I don’t know.
Take chemistry majors—are they representative of the student body as a whole? Probbaly not, because they’re interested in chemistyr. It’s likely that the 50 or 60 of them don’t represent a cross section of the college because they don’t have an interest in art or comparative literature. And you worry about representative student council, gee, if no one’s on financial aid, how did that happen? That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but how did that happen? In terms of their ability to represent students—I don’t know. But we do worry, I don’t worry so much about students seeking me out because I try to seek students out. That’s why I go to have dinner in residence halls and things and talk to people.
But you worry about students with different levels of what I’ll call social capital or social experience seeking out everything that will benefit them here. So how assertive you arei n a certain sense—I take that back, not assertive. If you have a certain way of engaging with the world in which you’re always seeking out opportunities, people, you’re gonna get more out of this experience than if you don’t, And what I’m interesyed in is every student being encouraged to seek out every opportunity here. Whether it’s any particular cohort of sudents, I can’t say. But I want everyone to be seeking them out. I didn’t seek them out in college, at least at first, because I was terrified. I mean, a first semester in college, terrified’s not too strong a word. I didn’t understand anything that was happening. It was all alien to me. And I clearly wasn’t seeking out stuff that...so.
DS: I’m an RA, and one thing you see a lot in the first year community is it’s a very lonely time.
JJV: Why is that? I’m not challenging it. I don’t want it to be a lonely time. I think it is, and what can we do about it?
DS: It’s a lot of things. Probably a lot of people are living away from home for the first time. A lot of people also are used to having regular contact with adults, they’ve grown up going home every day.
JJV: That’s a good point.
DS: And you find yourself spending more time alone than you probably ever have. Also probably because you spend less time in class with other people as well. And it’s one thing I’ve noticed and I think a lot of people don’t progress from that stage sometimes.
JJV: Orientation came up when I had dinner in McBain a couple weeks ago, and i asked this question—someone was saying they didn’t think NSOP was really successful in making connections with students. And it’s part of being a scientist—I like to do things in...how could you define something that, it’s not the outcome of the survey, it’s easy to know whether you’ve achieved something. So I said suppose this—that, would you feel NSOP was successful in that domain if at the end of NSOP you could identify six people you could invite to dinner. And someone said yeah. And so I’d like to know whether at the end of NSOP or the first year people feel that—pick six, pick any number. Two is too small, 20 is unrealistic. That you’d have someone—eating is one of those things you don’t really like to do by yourself. It’s very hard to do. So having someone to go eat with. The other thing I asked was, should we not allow first year students to live in singles? Would you be less lonely if you didn’t live in a single, if you had to have a roommate? Would that make a difference?
HNS: I definitely identify with what Dan is saying in terms of feeling alone freshman year. In my case that was compounded by being foreign, international. But I somewhat feel that way about the singles. I think that something that could have been done was have our NSOP OL groups correspond to our floor.
JJV: Yeah, this has come up.
HNS: I think the singles thing is actually valuable because when you’re going through a stressful time trying to sort yourself out in freshman year, it’s helpful to have your own space, and I think roommates can actually backfire in a certain way. But, yeah, I think that what you’re saying Dan, that perhaps certain students never get out of that freshman rut of feeling a little bit disoriented, and like you don’t have a place here, perhaps never goes away.
DS: My opinion is that it drives people toward fraternity and sorority life. And it’s because there you have a readymade community, and people seek out readymade communities. And you see that in student groups as well.
JJV: This is really important to me, the sense of belonging and having a group when you get here. This part is really important because it will be a lot about your success—I don’t mean your grades. I’m not interested in your grades, frankly. But your sense of, if this was good experience for me here, and I mean, I really want to know what it is we can do. So I have two reference points on this. One of my kids went to college and he ended up in a complicated situation—a single in a residence hall where everyone was in one freshman seminar, and everyone in his freshman seminar was somewhere else. This was a horrible experience for him. He was in a single. It was a terrible experience.
My other son was in the Marine Corps. You go in to the Marine Corps, it’s a very stressful experience. It’s not college. But you live in a room with like 30 people, and there is no being alone. You’re never alone. And what you learn is to depend on other people and to be part of a community. And whatever else you do, putting aside all the other things—it’s about being a soldier, I understand—but, there’s a sense of community right away, and part of that comes from 30 people living in a very spartan place and you’re never alone, and the whole culture is based on making you feel part of something. Now, we’re not the marine corps, and maybe that’s a bad thing, a lot of people here won’t like that analogy because [retracted]. But there’s something...
Sydney: That’s off the record.
JJV: Yes, sorry. But there’s something about ways of establishing a community and a sense of dependence on one another. What can we do here to do that?
HNS: I wrote an article about community a few years ago for Spec which I think was occasioned by an interview that the then Spec editors had had with you. And what ended up happening when I spoke to people in fraternities and sororities, in other micro-communities, or ready made communities, or student groups, was they said that the college itself is perhaps too big to constitute a community in itself. And I almost wonder if the things you I think rightly identify as defining the college—diversity, ambition, that sort of thing—they are definitely positive, but I wonder if they’re conducive to community. I wonder if you see them as conducive to community.
JJV: So, I don’t think they’re anti-conducive to community. None of those adjectives describes propelling a sense of community. In some ways, community is based on in my view a recognition of someone else’s well being being as important as your own. And that’s not, I don’t think that’s natural for human beings—I don’t think it’s how we survived. But it is essential to society. And I’ve said this to lots of people. Biological life is fundamentally a battle against the second law of thermodynamics. You don’t have to know what that means, but it’s OK. And society is fundamentally a battle against narcissism. Narcissism is about the singular importance of myself. I think a lot of stress is caused by narcissism too, because everything matters about what I do, everything matters what happens to me, everything matters matters matters about me. If you feel yourself as part of something and there’s kind of a collective endeavor, then you’ll feel, I think, less Oh god what I do is so important, but I won’t say...if I had a magic way to do that, we’d already be doing that. I don’t know. I don’t know how to do that.
DS: People doing things for the good of the college? Is that what you’re talking about?
JJV: Community, I think, is based fundamentally on a sense of valuing...feeling a sense of value and accomplishment as part of something as opposed to being an individual. That’s at the heart of a sense of community.
DS: We have about 5 minutes...
JJV: Community is not propagated by grading courses on a curve, and a lot of things you do in academic life focus on you as an individual. If you cooperate on something academic, we usually punish you. A lot of focus is on individual endeavor, so there’s not a lot of collective identity. For me, having something collective would be a way to propel a sense of community.
Sydney: We have time for one more question.
HNS: Are you aware of any faculty cats, or just general cats that live on or around campus? We’re running a feature.
Sydney: I suggested their fourth cat should be a lion.
JJV: Very good, Sydney! No, I don’t know.
DS: Do you have a pet lion?
JJV: Yes! [Indicates fluffy Roaree desk] Actually I have more than one. And I know the original Roaree. And I know the person who bought the costume that Roaree wears right now. [...] No, I have a dog. No I don’t have a cat. Yeah, I’m no cat person. I’ve never seen a cat on campus. I’ve seen dogs on campus, I’ve never seen a cat on campus. They’re very much more independent. When I see a dog, it’s with someone.