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Columbia University is Ivy League, not an ivory tower: president Minouche Shafik

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You have spoken about the need to fight poverty, bring in educational reforms and battle financial frauds. As president of Columbia University, how do you plan to help students find the balance?

People who tend to want jobs that are about doing good tend to be very optimistic and those who tend to do the jobs that are about preventing bad things from happening often are great warriors. I have had the good fortune of doing both. For younger people, I think a lot of it depends on their personality. And where they’re drawn. My instinct is to want to be the person who does good but, on the other hand, I have learned through my experience in these various jobs that sometimes preventing bad things from happening is even more important. For instance, the economic progress was destroyed by the financial crisis in 2008 . We lost decades of development because of covid in terms of students missing out on schooling, in terms of health outcomes. So, preventing bad things from happening is very important.

How do you plan to build on your experiences gained from working in the World Bank , International Monetary Fund and bring changes at Columbia?

If you look at the world today, it’s a very polarized world. I think, universities have a responsibility to be a place that teach students how to overcome these divisions and learn the skills of debate with different points of view. Education can help bridge some of those divides. I want Columbia to be a place that teaches those skills. The second thing is, I think, universities have solutions to many of the world’s problems. We can be the place that comes up with some of the new technologies, that will help us make addressing climate change more affordable, to use renewable energy on a more consistent basis. At Columbia, we are investing in many of those new ideas that will help solve those problems. We need to be a place that engages with the world. One of the strengths of a place like Columbia is where we are an Ivy League, but we are not an ivory tower.

Columbia University has been drawn into the controversy regarding protests on the back of Israel-Palestine war. There are reports that the protests were not sanctioned. What is your take on this?

A university in a place where free enquiry can happen, and it is the product of those debates that results in the best ideas. People will hear ideas that will make them uncomfortable, but that discomfort is often a source of creativity, and similarly protest is part of free speech and students should be allowed to protest and express their views. For us, the only constraint is that around safety and physical security, because we cannot permit violence. So, peaceful protest is an inherent part of an university.


Do you speak to the heads of other universities, as polarized views reach campuses?

Definitely. We talk all the time, compare notes and learn from each other’s experience. A response to a lot of the polarization that we see is more education, not less. I think education. A lot of the hatred comes from ignorance, when they have seen something on social media and go down the rabbit hole. So, we have to do a better job of education. Often, when people go to universities, it is the most diverse environment they’ve ever been. They have grown up at home with their family and their community, and it tends to be very homogeneous. When they are thrown into university, they encounter people from very different backgrounds with very different views from all over the world. And with very different interests. And the transition is a big challenge, and one of the things we need to do at a university is to help make that transition. To give them the tools that when you meet someone who comes from this very different background, how do you learn about them? How do you overcome your own prejudices?

How are you preparing students on the impact of AI on their lives?

Like any major technological innovation, AI will bring many good things, but also carries many risks. And the challenge is how to get the balance right between the two. There is a huge amount of work being done on very exciting opportunities like how AI can accelerate the development of new drugs to treat illnesses or using AI to find quicker solutions to climate change problems etc. Will it increase unemployment? Will it increase misinformation in our society and exacerbate polarisation? Will it exclude certain people? Those I think are some of the risks.

How can one mitigate the risks around AI?

Misinformation is a very big risk. I do think we’ve reached a stage now where we need regulation. Many countries are trying to figure out what that means and how? How do you regulate while still protecting from speech. But I think over the years ahead, we will see a big shift towards greater management. Risk to information is a fundamental threat to democracy in our society.

Should social media get regulated?

Some on social media in terms of having a bit more accountability for companies that spread misinformation. Some of the regulation on how AI is developed. Then there is equity and fairness. For instance, there is technology whereby surgeons can instruct robots in surgical procedure which made surgeries more reliable, affordable etc, but they found out that the robots were trained on male voices and it didn’t work when a female voice instructed. A small example of inequality built into technology.

Do you see changes in attention span, boredom seeping into students at the university?

Yes, we are seeing a little bit of that. The amount of time spent in reading a document has gone down. Faculty is adjusting by packaging the teachings in smaller units so that it is easier to digest. Another faculty member gives the students an essay to write and then shows them the ChatGPT version. And so here’s the chat GP produced do something better (something missing in the sentence). I do worry about social media and the anonymity of it. That people say (horrible things) to each other in an anonymous state.

How is Columbia University working on the impact of climate change?

For people who understand climate issues, and so we want to be the best professional school. Going ahead, lawyers, business people, people in industry, people in government, people in NGOs will need the skills because we are going to have to deal with the consequences of climate change for many decades to come. So, we’re developing educational programs, master’s programs on issues around climate. We are investing in a lot of the potential solutions to climate change, whether it’s new food systems, new technologies that will help us manage the energy transition.

Mental health is another area that needs to be looked into.

It is important to recognise that we have a mental health crisis in the world, both in young people and older people. At Columbia University, people are finding ways to prevent mental illness before it happens, when it does not have a physical manifestation. Through building community, through physical exercise, through good diet, through the kind of interactions that people have with each other. The covid generation took a huge hit in terms of difficulty with building relationships. We have to support that generation through this difficult time. What makes people happy in their life is remarkably universal-physical and mental health; quality of the relationships they have in their life and having meaningful work.

There are about 1,300 students from India in Columbia today, the second-largest batch after China. How are you tapping for (does it mean ‘recruiting more students?) more students?

We are thrilled and delighted that we have a growing number of Indian students, so incredibly talented. The only constraint on it (something missing here, may be we can remove). Growing more really is having enough scholarships and financial aid, and we have some generous donors, many of them from India, who are supporting other Indian students to be able to get an education at a place like Columbia. And so, we’re eager to find more of that support to provide these opportunities. It is a very important time for India. To get some of its most talented students educated abroad. India is going to be, is already, a major global power, and having more talented Indians who have that kind of global perspective is really important for the future.

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Published: 10 Dec 2023, 10:00 PM IST


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