Director’s Letter

The University Seminars was founded by Frank Tannenbaum in 1944. When Frank’s wife and seminar participant, Jane Belo, died in 1968, she left funds to endow the University Seminars with the stipulation that the endowment never be used for any other purpose than the Seminars themselves. Nearly 70 years later we remain a novel and indispensable means of exchanging, recording, validating and responding to new ideas. No matter that our archives may change from books on shelves to digital documents in an online “cloud,” our distinguishing format – face-to-face intellectual exchange, often over a meal and a glass of wine – has withstood the test of time. Since our founding, The University Seminars’ aim has been to remain the means of exchanging, recording, validating and responding to new ideas.  As independent entities, the seminars can take intellectual risks the University might not otherwise assume. Columbia is one of the few major universities with the courage to institutionalize such independence. Our culture is collaborative and open, and so long as the members of each seminar continue to trust in each other’s sincerity enough to accept criticism as well-meant, the Seminars as a whole will continue to be self-insured against the temptations of rhetoric and false precision. In his decade as director, Bob Belknap oversaw the digitalization and archiving of the vast body of minutes kept by our rapporteurs since 1944. We intend in the next few years to have the University Seminars produce a full and annotated catalog – in hand and on line – of all books published with the help of the Seminars’ publications funds, and of all scholarly articles published by seminar members whose creative work on those papers emerged in all or part from within one of our seminars. In 1965, at age 72, still at Columbia and just before the seismic events of the late ‘60s, Frank Tannenbaum edited a summation of the Seminars on their twentieth anniversary, “A Community of Scholars.” Nobel laureate physicist I. I. Rabi wrote the introduction, and President Grayson Kirk wrote the foreword. We have begun to plan for a seventieth anniversary, second edition, of “A Community of Scholars.”When, as I hope, a book in the tradition of “A Community of Scholars” begins to emerge from Seminars’ discussions, and it will be – like The University Seminars themselves – a shared enterprise.