History of The Seminars

In the nineteen thirties, Professor Frank Tannenbaum had discussed with Nicholas Murray Butler the idea of ongoing groups of Columbia professors and experts from the whole region to explore matters no single department had the breadth or the agility to study. Butler liked the idea as a quick way to mobilize the intellectual resources of the University about suddenly emerging problems, but World War II supervened and it was 1944 before his successor, Frank Fackenthal, approved the first five University Seminars. Three of these seminars still meet: Peace, Religion, and The Renaissance.

The Seminars have continued to serve Butler’s purpose, but they have also become an intrinsic part of the enterprise Columbia does better than any great university in the world: the ongoing education of its own faculty. Most of this education takes place within the academic departments, but Tannenbaum was continuing a tradition of General Education in a Core Curriculum that Columbia had been developing for thirty years. The Contemporary Civilization and the Humanities courses are famous for the breadth they give Columbia undergraduates, and astonishingly unrecognized as a boot-camp where econometricians acquire sophistication by conducting rough and tumble discussions of Plato.

This tradition positioned Columbia professors to invent the interdisciplinary regional institutes that trained graduate students to handle post-war complexities beyond their departments, but also forced political scientists, economists, and literary scholars to learn from each other. Over the past two thirds of a century, the Seminars have offered more and more specialists from Columbia and elsewhere the chance to learn and discover things together.

When Tannenbaum died in 1969, there were fifty seminars. He and his wife, Jane Belo Tannenbaum, left the Seminars a million and a half dollars in their wills, to be invested and reinvested as a dedicated part of Columbia’s endowment. Tannenbaum wrote a charter to “protect the spontaneity of the Seminars from an unstructured situation [in which] interference is inevitable, because the desire for general rules and uniformity is irresistible.” The Director of the Seminars was not to be appointed by the President of the University but selected and instructed by a General Committee, consisting of Columbia’s President, Provost, and the chairs of all the seminars.

In the four decades since, the number of seminars has grown to over 90. About half the seminars that have been founded are still meeting, while half have merged, split, or dissolved. James Gutmann followed Tannenbaum as Director from 1969 to 1975, followed by Aaron Warner, from 1976 to 2000, and Robert Belknap from 2001 to 2011, when his student Robert Pollack succeeded him.

Seminar participants and speakers attend by invitation and neither pay nor are paid, although a central office supports travel and hotel expenses for speakers when its endowment income permits.

As independent entities, the seminars can take intellectual risks the University might not otherwise assume. They provide something every great institution needs: a small area where activities are fast, cheap, and out of control. Columbia is one of the few universities, or businesses, with the courage to institutionalize such independence. The Seminars link Columbia with the intellectual resources of the surrounding communities. This outreach also offers to both worlds the fruits of interaction and mutual criticism, as well as the advantages of close contacts: a place to network, establish ties, exchange scholarly or professional news, or explore either side of the job market.

Seminars are closed to the general public, and in particular to the press and other media. For the benefit of a broader audience, the minutes of most past meetings are made available Columbia Library users. To encourage candor in discussion of controversial issues, seminars may exercise discretion over the contents and distribution of their minutes online.

The Seminars subsidize the publication of certain books written under their auspices, and arrange conferences to make public their discoveries or to work quietly with scholars too distant to be regular seminar participants. Some seminars are tight, restricted discussion groups that study unfashionable problems; others are broad-based lecture series where eminent visitors disseminate the latest knowledge. Frank Tannenbaum, the founder of the University Seminars, believed that uniformity imposed from above would destroy them. Scholars and others interested in attending a seminar should email their credentials to the appropriate chair.