Refocusing a Research University
New Columbia president George Rupp wants to bolster the undergraduate experience
NEW YORK — THE twice-a-week racquetball games have been on hold. Newly inaugurated Columbia University president George Rupp simply hasn't had the time. His tightly scheduled 15-hour days also haven't allowed as much contact with students as he would like. Whenever he has a meal that ``isn't spoken for'' - that has not happened in three weeks - he likes to join students in their dormitories for food and talk.
Besides fund-raising and the myriad routine duties of running one of the nation's top research universities, Dr. Rupp is taking bold steps both to streamline the curriculum at Columbia and to shift its heavy emphasis on graduate studies back to undergraduate education. Only one-third of Columbia's nearly 20,000 students are undergrads.
Budget constraints are fueling much of the change. Columbia's new president is determined that finances alone not shape the results.
Faculty members know that ``wrenching changes'' lie ahead, says Columbia anthropology professor Katherine Newman. Yet with Rupp at the helm, she says, there is a general feeling of optimism that the shifts will be constructive.
``I'd rather have him leading [the changes] than anybody else I can think of,'' says professor Newman, a member of the search committee that chose the new president after a six-month nationwide search.
Rupp, an ordained Presbyterian minister and former dean of Harvard University's Divinity School, is both a scholar and a seasoned administrator. He comes to Columbia after eight years as president of Rice University in Houston. Strengthening ties
``I'm not a good person to use as a model for life planning,'' he insists as he sits for a shirtsleeves interview in his office in Columbia's Low Library. He says he never planned ahead as to whether he would become a minister or a teacher.
What happened, he says, was that each time he took a teaching post, from his first job at the University of Redlands' experimental Johnston College in 1971, he invariably became involved as much in managing the institution as in teaching at it.
Columbia University, which operates on an annual budget of more than $1 billion, has 71 academic departments. Before taking office last July, Rupp tapped three of the university's top educators to lead an effort to strengthen ties between the School of Arts and Sciences, considered the heart of the university's undergraduate curriculum, and the professional schools. The three educators were given new titles that cut across the usual graduate and undergraduate lines.
Rupp explains that his philosophy of leadership is not to look for those willing to do the job but to find the best people and then convince them to accept the task.
``We didn't jump at the opportunity,'' recalls Steven Marcus, a professor of English who was named dean of the college and vice president for arts and sciences. He says Rupp was persuasive, not in the sense of salesmanship, but in his directness and sincerity in clearly wanting to do the ``right'' thing and to improve the university.
``He goes right to the point and says what he thinks and feels about things, and I found that very difficult to resist,'' says Dr. Marcus, who had planned to take a year's sabbatical.
Instead, all three professors have temporarily shelved their research and teaching chores to tackle the reform effort. Numerous options, including possible joint appointments in departments and professional schools, such as economics and business, are under consideration, Marcus says.
Rupp argues that those in advanced study and research often feel closer ties to their peers in similar specialized studies at other universities than to those in their own academic community.
He says Columbia needs more of the pull toward a common center which the undergraduate curriculum provides. At its base is Columbia's traditional core curriculum in which all students read classic literature, philosophy, and history texts.
``Offering an unsurpassed undergraduate education ties this university together in a way that nothing else does,'' Rupp says. ``It's important that this institution has a sense of itself that's more than just the sum of its parts.'' A frank appraisal
Located in the heart of what he calls ``the world's premier international city,'' Columbia also faces strong local obligations, he says.
Some 800 Columbia students volunteer in major projects from tutoring to social work under the university's Community Impact program. Columbia is also working to revitalize surrounding neighborhoods from Washington Heights, where the university's medical center lies, to the Morningside Heights district of the main campus. Rupp has been meeting with a number of leaders from central Harlem on ways to accomplish the latter.
The Big Apple's hyperactivity and ``no-nonsense orientation,'' he says, have helped to keep the university ``refreshingly free of the kind of snobbery'' that affects some other universities.
``It's a lovely campus but ... it's wonderfully far away from any kind of country-club atmosphere,'' he says.
Rupp, the son of German immigrants who were not college graduates, grew up ``across the river'' in New Jersey and earned a degree in comparative literature from Princeton University where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
He took his junior year abroad at the University of Munich and later studied Buddhist thought for a year in Sri Lanka. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and four books.
He says he constantly draws on his training as a teacher and scholar in his administrative work. ``Conducting a meeting is not that different from conducting a seminar,'' he says. Similarly, analyzing university problems is not that different from scholarly research. ``I find the carry-over very direct,'' Rupp says.
He and his wife, Nancy, who live on campus in the president's house, have two grown daughters who also are weighing academic careers. Mrs. Rupp has worked as a high school teacher and librarian in the past but is currently ``Columbia-ing'' on a full-time basis, according to her husband. She hosts events at their house and accompanies him to numerous dinners and programs.
The theologian is the first president with no previous Columbia connections since Dwight Eisenhower took the post in 1948.
Newman says Rupp's detailed grasp of the problems facing universities and his strong commitment to quality education made him a standout among all the other candidates for the job. She recalls that the students in the dormitory where she lives were delighted when Rupp made time one busy evening in September to come for dinner and give his frank appraisal of the university's problems and strengths.
``He was honest and he was open, and I think that was widely appreciated,'' she says.