The Greatest Dean in the Greatest College
Updated: Jul 18, 2021
In the Greatest City in the Greatest Country in the World.
By Daniel Stone & Hallie Nell Swanson
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 former Dean (and current Professor) Michele Moody-Adams over questions of the university’s commitment to undergraduate education. Since then, Dean Valentini has had a well-intentioned and inoffensive presence on campus. On a sunny day in March, Daniel Stone and Hallie Nell Swanson trudged up the steps of Hamilton Hall to join him in his office off the lobby. Also present was Sydney Gross, Columbia College’s Director of Communications. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Hallie Nell Swanson: Do you feel there is a relationship between the academic discipline you've come from and the way you approach being dean?
James Valentini: I think it’s most evident if I try to step out of myself and look at myself as dean. When we discuss what to do, I want to always 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. But that’s part of it. 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. Chemistry doesn’t specifically prepare you for that—maybe if you had a PhD in psychology that would be better.
Daniel Stone: Do you ever think of yourself as someone in a succession of deans?
JV: 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. It’s something about making ourselves even better. I think a lot about what can we do to build something that will persist even if everyone working with me now—Sydney and everyone else—went onto some other job. 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?
JV: Yeah—it’s well put. But it’s sort of more than that, an institutional culture, a way that it’s about us in collection, that that culture persists even when the people in it change.
DS: It sounds like what you’re getting at is that there is some sort of Columbian identity?
JV: Yeah—and I think there really is. Every school has a mission statement. We used to have one 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 (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 corporate?
JV: You know, it’s natural for people to say that because if you go outside to someone who’s in the corporate world they’ll 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: 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.
HNS: 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.
JV: 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 Princeton has one, Harvard has one, there’s Yale College, Harvard College. 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.
JV: 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? I have homework for you: I’d like each of you to write a mission statement for Columbia College. Send it to Sydney. It’s not a lot of work. This is not a test, I’m actually curious what you would write. [For The Blue and White’s CC Mission Statement, see page 5.]
HNS: How would you describe a CC student, and can you describe a CC student?
JV: These 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 in 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 Columbia College student. Now does every Columbia College student display those? I think to at least some extent, yes. Would any particular Columbia College student identify himself or herself that way? Maybe not.
HNS: When you’re thinking about the students that you represent, how do you get a cross-section of the student body?
JV: 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,” … So characterizing someone—OK, getting a representative sample is really hard.
DS: What feeds your sense of these things, though?
JV: Just from talking to students.
DS: Who do you talk to, though?
JV: I talked to a lot of students even before I became dean. In my life at Columbia, I’ve taught probably between four and five thousand students. How many of them did I know personally? 20 percent maybe, maybe more. As dean now, I talk to a lot of students. Sometimes I run into students on College Walk and we just start talking, and I ask them about what they’re doing and what they think about. But in an organized way, I have office hours. Do I have office hours today? Or tomorrow?
Sydney Gross: Today.
JV: 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 ten or 12 students at lunchtime, I talk to them. I have regular meetings with Columbia College Student Council president and vice president, with the Columbia College 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.
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 that they lack a sense of detachment?
JV: 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. 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. But it’s difficult.
HNS: Would you say that you’ve seen changes in university culture or the kinds of kids who are here from 2011 to now?
JV: I think students feel a diminished sense of security about their futures now than they did when I first came to Columbia or even ten 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. But I think you have as much or greater reason to feel secure about yourselves individually in the future as students did ten 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.
DS: Is it wrong for us to suggest that the professional future of a student goes hand in hand with their well-being?
JV: 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 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.
JV: 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 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 Columbia College 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.
HNS: One of our articles this issue is about diversity in CCSC [see page 13]. Apparently only one of the members is on financial aid. Obviously you have commitments to first-generation, low-income students, for example, but do you still find they might not be seeking you out to interact with you the same way that other students might be?
JV: 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. I don’t worry so much about students seeking me out because I try to seek students out. 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. Whether it’s any particular cohort of students, I can’t say. I didn’t seek out those opportunities in college, at least at first, because I was terrified. I mean, a first semester in college, terrified isn’t too strong a word. I didn’t understand anything that was happening. It was all alien to me.
DS: I’m an RA, and one thing you see a lot in the first-year community is that it’s a very lonely time.
JV: 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.
JV: That’s a good point.
HNS: I definitely identify with what Dan is saying in terms of loneliness in freshman year. 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 you see them as conducive to community.
JV: 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, you are less inclined to think, “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?
JV: 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. 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.
SG: We have time for one more question.
HNS: Are you aware of any faculty cats, or just in general cats that live on or around campus? We’re looking for a fourth local cat for our feature on cats.
SG: I suggested their fourth cat should be a lion.
JV: Very good, Sydney! No, I don’t know.
DS: Do you have a pet lion?
JV: Yes! [Indicates fluffy Roaree on 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. I don’t have a cat. Yeah, I’m no cat person. 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.