• The Blue and White Magazine

The Spirit of General Studies

The Blue and White remembers a Conversation from 2011 with Dean Awn.


In 2011, The Blue and White published a conversation with Peter J. Awn, who for 20 years was the Dean Emeritus of the School of General Studies. He also taught Islamic and Comparative Religion at Columbia University. On Sunday, February 17th, Dean Awn tragically passed away due to injuries sustained last month when he was hit by a car. To honor and celebrate Dean Awn, The Blue and White has decided to re-release his conversation.

Throughout his time as the Dean of GS, Dean Awn continually worked to improve, support and diversify the GS community. One of the most important initiatives that Dean Awn championed during his time as the Dean of GS was the creation of the Center for Veteran Transition and Integration. The Center helps bring service members retiring from duty to Columbia University and assists them during their transition to academic life. Dean Awn also helped to diversify the GS student population through the creation of dual degree programs with Sciences Po, the City University of Hong Kong, and Trinity College Dublin.


As part of these programs, students spend two years at one of those three schools and complete the final two years of their undergraduate degree at the School of General Studies. Students then graduate with degrees from both schools. Both initiatives demonstrate the emphasis Dean Awn placed on expanding and diversifying the GS community during his time as Dean. After retiring as Dean in 2017, Dean Awn returned to his previous position in the department of religion, where he placed an important emphasis on making personal connections with graduate school applicants. Throughout his time here, Dean Awn showed incredible energy, devotion, and commitment to bettering the Columbia community. He will be greatly missed.


The Blue & White: So, you were not quite 20 years here and you became Dean in ‘97?


Peter Awn: That’s right, in ‘97 I became Dean, absolutely. But I think what’s important is that very early on … I got hired and I started teaching my undergraduate courses, which is what I did for the most part (I had a few graduate course[s]) and I said “Who the hell are these people in my class?” I thought I was going to be teaching 18-year olds! Or you know 18- to 21 year olds. And so it was this much more diverse environment, which I thought was a kick. And I went to my department chair, and I asked her, I said, “Who are these people?” And she laughed and she said, “Go over to Lewisohn Hall and you’ll find out.” So I came over here and in some was I was I was hooked. … I thought it was just a terrific, terrific model of education that I thought really complemented traditional education … The problem is, we’re so used to it, we don’t appreciate how incredibly cutting-edge it is in terms of undergraduate education and why.

The traditional model of quote: “adult education” was seen as an appendage on the “real” university structure, the real colleges at the university, and they were always embedded within a broad continuing education division that ran non-degree programs. Come take a course, do whatever you want kind of environment. So you [created] a kind of culture in which when people reached a certain age they were allowed in, kind of, but never taken seriously. And so the culture creates this dichotomy between the real undergraduates and the older students who are here for self-enrichment, maybe self-advancement. But somehow age and experience have created a sort of mental deficiency that doesn’t allow you to compete. And that has become ingrained within the American private education structure… If you don’t begin to take in and take seriously the fact that 75 percent of Americans interested in higher education fit more the non-traditional model than the traditional model, you are going to become completely on the fringe of how American society is evolving. Realize how the demographic changes have affected education, and how people’s choices about how they manage their education have changed dramatically since the 1950s.

Illustration by Sahra Denner

B&W: You say that pretty early on in your career here you were hooked on GS because you saw it as a cutting edge model for education.


PA: Well, it was but it needed a lot of fixing. It really did. It still suffered from the fact that Columbia had for decades, if not centuries, been wildly decentralized so that each dean hired his or her own faculty. The academic programs were determined by the faculty of the school, so that even [though] you might be in some of your classes with students from the other colleges, in fact the separation among the colleges was fairly pronounced. So that, I knew, and my colleagues around the University knew, as a model that was well on its way to being buried. That what matters most is an academic model of full integration and the creation of a model of education that the faculty can manage easily without worrying about “What the hell are the GS requirements. What are the College requirements?” A department should determine, “What do you think is critical for a student to know to engage in order to complete a major?” And if you determine that, why would you make a distinction between one population and another? … So the advantage that we’ve reached now is a Columbia graduate is a Columbia graduate no matter what school they’re from. And that’s how faculty see it and that’s the reality.

Now my ability to really push this forward as a model as Dean has been really [been based upon] the enormous support that one gets from faculty for GS students. And that’s in contrast to what you will find at other elite, private universities. We’ve had 60-some-odd years to be able to bring the faculty along. When you broach this with other Ivy League faculties, they’re horrified. They have no context in which to see this work. Now, I know some colleagues at Princeton and Harvard for whom this is a really interesting idea, but they’re never really sure how to engage their colleagues on this.

Now… when I came in the ‘70s- and this is true, it isn’t in any way to put Columbia College down, it’s just the reality- in the late ‘70s… The City was in such dire financial straits that everybody was as surly as can be. The neighborhood was to put it mildly dangerous. So in the late ‘70s Columbia College could not generate more than 3,500 to 3,7000 applications. We would take one of two applicants to try to build a class of 650. We’d sit at faculty meetings wringing our hands. The faculty was terrific, but why would anyone from outside the city send their child here when they read all of how terrible… And therefore it was hard to keep the level of quality that now seems so obvious. For a whole variety of reasons, in the ‘80s the whole city turned around. The College went coed and it really began to come into its own, as it should. So it became then, for GS: this is the bar you have to reach to be credible. It’s not just integration, but the students you have to integrate have to be as competitive intellectually as everybody else.

And that’s been the fun of this for me. Admissions here is really interesting because you have to evaluate people in a very different way from the way you have to evaluate seniors in high school. It’s not less rigorous. It’s just more comprehensive, and in fact we try to prequalify applicants. When you contact us – and we try to make you contact us – we want to have at least one or two initial engagements to help you decide, is it really worth applying? The last thing we want is a pointless application. So we want to convince you not to apply if we don’t think you’ve got a good shot at getting in. So getting thousands and thousands of applications is not to our benefit, We want to be engaged with applications that are seriously viable.


B&W: So do you think that accounts for the much higher acceptance rate in comparison to the College?


PA: Oh absolutely. That’s exactly why. And we do that quite deliberately. Everyone says, “How can that be, how can that be?” First of all, we’re a small operation and we spend an average of four hours per application. You show me a traditional college that does that. Now we have to on some levels because you all come with very complex lives and there’re no two applications that are going to be the same.

Rarely is it a question of your intelligence, but it is always a question of, “Well, how have you managed your life?” For example, we get people from the military, I’d say, and dancers. I talk to them in the same breath and they all look at me, but in fact you’re very similar in terms of background. Why? Frequently people who enter the military do so right out of high school…


B&W: Typically, yeah.


PA: If you just looked at their high school record, yeah, you’re going to get some sense of their potential. But you know, that’s a long time ago, so what’s been going on now? Do they read, can they think, can they write? And do they have the focus and the commitment to do this?

And like the dancers who frequently do the same thing (in fact some of them don’t even go to high school, they frequently have to get a GED- they haven’t been to school. They’re mid-20s, late-20s. They’re like athletes: you get to a point where your body’s going to give out. You have to decide what you want to do with your life. The ones we take are voracious readers. They’re really intellectually alive. So they’re autodidacts, and I think in some ways the people we get from the military are like that. And so you transfer that focus to your work at Columbia in ways that students who haven’t had that rigorous environment don’t necessarily have or have to self-generate. And it really is interesting how those kinds of parallels exist in the GS population.


B&W: So it seems like GS has flagged certain groups of people out there in society that you know from experience will likely do well.


PA: Yeah, but I can give you half a dozen other groups. For example, entrepreneurs. We’ve had a long tradition of incredibly successful entrepreneurs.


B&W: Well I think that the most common perception that I’ve head is that GS is the back door.


PA: Which is bologna. It can’t be the back door if you’re doing as well as the College students, which is really true. The graduating seniors — basically the GPAs… There’s a little bit to go to make them identical, but it’s so close as to be actually irrelevant. And I also think in a few days it will be better than the College. [Laughs] So give me a break, when you’re the best student in the department as a graduating senior, tell me why that’s a back door.


B&W: So…


PA: The culture wars were ferocious. I find sadly now it’s the Barnard women who are taking the brunt of a lot of the negative sort of press, or negative kind of cultural push. But, oh, no, they were vicious, absolutely vicious to the point where GS students couldn’t join clubs. If you did, you couldn’t become an officer. It was, I mean, all of these kinds of ways to make you feel like a second-class citizen. Now, more often than not, and I don’t know whether it’s to make me feel good, but a lot of the College students I’ve spoken to (but it seems to come out naturally) say, “You know, I’ve really enjoyed being in classes with GS students. That I really learned a lot from having GS students in my class. It really does make the educational process something a little more complex than it might be were I at Princeton or Yale.


B&W: Now that, at this point, it’s safe to say that GS is definitely working in the Columbia community, has definitely been accepted…


PA: Where is the real problem?


B&W: Well, my question was going to be: when are we going to change the name?


PA: Oh, no, it’s a horrible name. I could give you a lecture on the Studium Generale, which is the origin of this, but it means absolutely nothing now. There’s nothing “general” about it. The issue — it’s linked to the issue I was going to bring up: where have I, in a sense, failed. Though I’ve done a lot better, but it’s not even close to enough and will really … and has already begun to have a damaging effect, is financial aid. You’re paying the same tuition as Columbia College students… We get, percentage-wise, functionally half the financial aid dollars that are available to Columbia College students. That’s untenable.


B&W: I almost didn’t come for that reason. I was this close to not [coming] for that reason.


PA: You and 98 percent of your fellow students, and you would be depressed to hear how many people do say no. Really, really, talented people who say no, who would thrive here, be an immense contribution to the community.

And as I’ve joked, you could rename it [the college] whatever you want for a couple hundred million. But it has to be a name that is truly unique, that isn’t mirrored at other universities, and that therefore embodies the uniqueness of this educational experiment. Now, if the money doesn’t come, then the pressure that I feel – and rightly so – to change the name may lead us to make a move to pick a name.

You know, you may go for a dead white male from Columbia’s history. Frankly, I would love to name it after a woman. I mean, what Ivy League college is named after a woman? I mean, other than women’s colleges, zero. So now’s the time to say: the majority of undergraduates on this campus are women and we [GS] were the beacon of women’s education, co-education anyway, and adult women’s education in the city and at Columbia.


B&W: Possible names?


PA: You know, I don’t have a serious list. If I did, I’d tell you.


B&W: Well, you covered all my questions without me having to even ask them.


PA: Well, I guess. But you can tell I really believe in this. And it does really disappoint me that colleagues around the other elite colleges and universities haven’t quite recognized this yet.

Now realize that I’m not saying that something terrible’s going to happen to Columbia College or Princeton or Harvard. There will always be a very strong constituency for the traditional colleges. The model I’m arguing for is really the marriage of both.

Traditional applicants are very different from how you approach a non-traditional student. Advising is different. And that’s why you need a separate division… And that’s a very interesting model where you have this parallel process of separate divisions recruiting different constituencies. But then they all end up in the classroom together and it’s that that I espouse – and elite traditional college as well as an elite non-traditional college.


B&W: Does it seem to you like other (call them top-tier) colleges are testing the waters right now?


PA: Well I think they’re starting to catch on…The best story is [Provost] Claude Steele when he arrived from Stanford. He had literally been here a week and I invited him to speak at orientation for the fall class. And he didn’t know the campus well. I had to go pick him up at his office and bring him over to, you know. And when I got there, he had to admit, “What’s GS?” And I gave him GS101 as we walked across campus and by the end he said, “Why doesn’t every private university have one of these? This is amazing. This is what I’ve been writing about my whole career.”

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