General Meeting


Meeting Minutes

Director’s Report to University Seminars Chairs November 6, 2013
Robert Pollack, Director

Last year Robert Remez read my report to you all, while I had been immobilized by a broken ankle.  Glad to be back. I closed that paper last year with notion that we can best understand ourselves, whether as a group or society, a culture or community, a collective or movement, if we contrast the University Seminars with a hypothetical “Seminars University.”  The main difference between the two would be this: a Seminars University  would have faculty and students, and would recognize the difference through degrees awarded in name of faculty to students, whereas The University Seminars has neither faculty nor students, only colleagues. So, while Seminars U would sponsor many sorts of public events to recognize the hierarchal distinction between students and faculty – think graduation– the University Seminars ideal is wholly private and very modest: a set of a dozen or so folks in a room, testing ideas from one of them by discourse, without risk. Here is how our Founder, Frank Tannenbaum put it, fifty years ago:”The free flow of conversation between scholars or practitioners about the meaning of the activity to which their lives are dedicated has a quality of revelation, of discovery, of the excitement of original publication. I had learned perhaps from the Socratic Dialogs, that under certain conditions verbal communication can be a deeply creative and synthesizing experience.  If it were only possible to contrive a continuing fellowship among people who were trying to solve some riddle, unravel a mystery, deal with a perennial issue of public concern, then– if conditions were right – we might achieve this long sought for but subtly evasive value, mutual understanding among the professions and between the members of the academy.”We are now five years after the great bubble of housing prices burst, bringing the university’s endowment down and the Seminars endowment down with it. At last both endowments are in recovery, as is our economy, however slowly. I want to mark the moment by reviewing the fiscal implications today and for the future, of the differences between The University Seminars and the hypothetical Seminars University. The University Seminars income is the yield on an endowment put in the hands of the University Trustees some fifty years ago by the widow of Frank Tannenbaum, Jane Belo.  By accepting the terms of her will, Columbia Trustees agreed not to take the accrued funds from the endowment of The Seminars for any other purpose.  Later, by agreement with the Provost in 1987, The Seminars were allowed to seek further funds, providing we did not make use in any way of the office of University Development, and that we did not in any way compete with University fundraising. This fiscal year, as in all previous years, fair weather or foul, we have returned some of the yield to the principal, but in doing that we find we did not escape the 2008 disaster untouched. We find ourselves facing the need as well, to reduce our commitments for the coming fiscal year, in order to be sure we will be able to return some funds next year and thereafter. The question then becomes how to commit less money for next year in such a way that the central distinction between University Seminars and Seminars University, remains protected and even enhanced?Here are proposals for next year’s budget that will accomplish that; these are the shared work of the Seminars office – Alice Newton, Gessy Alvarez, Summer Hart, Pamela Guardia and me – and the Advisory Board chaired by Robert Remez.

  • Colleagues at Columbia who wish to propose a new Seminar or to revive one now in abeyance, will see no difference in the process for either of those welcome events.
  • Seminars which share discourse among their members and which invite speakers who enhance the ongoing discourse of the Seminar and who also may become future members, will see little or no difference in the coming year.
  • Seminars whose members generate manuscripts that are then accepted for publication, will see no difference in the process by which the Seminars office will provide a subvention for publication on the recommendation of the Advisory Board.
  • Rapporteurs, so essential for the smooth running of Seminars, will continue to be paid an hourly stipend for each seminar. They may submit time sheets for up to 10 hr./seminar without further ado. However, when their time for a seminar exceeds 10 hr., Chairs will now have to make the case for the additional expense. With that in place, Rapporteurs will continue to cost our endowment the considerable amount their services represent: at 6 meetings/year, 85 seminars may expect to cost us about $100,000/year at 10 hr./seminar.
  • The Seminars will continue to provide a subvention for Faculty House meals by members of Seminars. No difference to report, though we have to be aware that as tenants of Faculty House, we do not control our rates here.
  • The Conferences and Symposia organized by Seminars are the parts of our current operation that most closely resemble Seminars University functions. We will act accordingly: we will now ask organizers of private or public Symposia to assure in their application for Seminars funds, that other organizations will be sharing the overall cost of the event with The Seminars.
  • The budget for Symposia to be held in Academic year 2013-­‐14 has been spent, so when we have received request for funding for the spring semester, we have asked Chairs to put off the symposium to the following fall so that we might have the Advisory Board consider the merits of the case which we would commit funds for the following year.
  • We will continue to provide funds for Rapporteurs to assist in Symposia, but we will cap the cost to The Seminars at 20 hr./conference, starting in January 2014. Beginning then, we will ask that any rapporteur expense running over 20 hours, be paid out of other funds supporting the conference or symposium.

I hope you will all approve these boundary conditions, and that you will agree they reflect our founding principals.  And the future? We have proposed here a reasonable response to the future in fiscal terms, but my predecessors knew as I have learned, that money is necessary but never sufficient. I have also learned that the Director can and should honor the past by way of planning for the future of these Seminars. Toward that end, we have the following proposal for you to consider. 2015 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the book that earlier quote was taken from, “A Community of Scholars.” It is a history of the first twenty years of the Seminars edited by Frank Tannenbaum, with a Foreword by President Grayson Kirk and an Introduction by Professor of Physics and Nobel Laureate I.I. Rabi. How shall we mark this fiftieth anniversary? I invite you as the chairs of the current seminars, to consider the question, and let us know your thoughts.  The subtext here is the question that I find most important and most troubling: What is the 21st century equivalent of a scholarly book? I am sure there will be many questions, so now, please, let’s open a discussion on these matters.

Bob Pollack


Meeting Minutes

The University Seminars General Meeting convened 10/23/2012 at 4 pm. Robert Remez opened the meeting and read the following introduction on behalf of Robert Pollack.

Dear colleagues,
I am writing to you with my right foot elevated above my heart.  Not an arcane ritual but the obligation of a guy who has broken his ankle and had it screwed back together by uptown colleagues.No other lesson in humility has ever taken me with such visceral intensity.  I will gladly accept all prayers of healing in the humble knowledge that our bodies are far more alike than our histories or our traditions.I had planned to give a short talk here tonight, but Doctors’ orders included two weeks more of going nowhere with my foot in the air.   It turns out though, that does not mean you are free of me and my strong opinions about the proper role of University Seminars in the life of the University.Robert Remez has kindly offered to allow me to share these thoughts with you by reading my talk for me.  As he is both the Chair of our Advisory Board and a very good guy, I hope you will be patient as he channels me for a moment.Let me work outward from our Core.  Since our founding last century, The University Seminars have been held to a set of boundaries on our actions.  These rules are neither negotiable nor debatable, but absolutely definitional for us all.  They derive from one initial principle: that though we are all smart, and though some of us are so smart that no one else compares, still we are each mortal and so in mortal need of each others’ trust and affection.By that principle, The University Seminars have very few rules, all of them tested by time to assure a future for every Seminar that is free of top-down ideology or censorship, free of hierarchical academic favoritism, free of Ivy snobbery, and most of all, free to make its own mistakes and by seeing them free to change at any time, to become a better seminar than anyone could have imagined.I can collapse all of those rules into one: no honoraria.  It is a bizarre notion, but there you have it.  From our inception, the Seminars have steered clear of the faint but pungent odors of payoff and favoritism in this way, and in this way the hundreds of books and thousands of scholarly articles that have emerged over the decades from our Seminars, their Symposia and our wonderful public lecture series, all remain untainted as well.By this single boundary we have found the Seminars to be protected from the distractions of professionalism, and their members to be liberated in intellectual generosity to one another.  That protection and that liberation taken together give the Seminars our capacity to meet as peers in fact as well as in name.The price we pay for all of this freedom and dignity is the price paid by any small self-respecting social structure embedded in a larger and more competitive one, as we are embedded in the University.  That is, we must remain peripheral, marginal, small; a curiosity but no more.  Nor would I say that is a bad deal, so long as we keep our freedom.  I suspect it is no accident that our founder Frank Tannenbaum spent a portion of his childhood on a farm in the Berkshires near Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a part of the country that has seen many noble but marginal social experiments over the past few centuries.Just for a moment, though, let’s have the pleasure of a Gedankenexperiment.  Let’s imagine an alternate University.  In this one, our little organization has its name slightly altered, reversing the adjective and the noun.  That would make us “Seminars University.”  What would Seminars University be like, and how would it perhaps have something of value to give as a gift to its life-long neighbor, Columbia University? As a University, it would have the obligation to create new knowledge, and to teach.  That obligation would extend to teaching what is known and to teaching how to think critically and clearly about the differences among the known, the unknown and possibly unknowable. As a University, it would have for its faculty a freedom to choose among the many paths of argument and experiment, and to write and publish without fear of political censorship because of disagreement with anyone at all associated with the University, no matter how lofty. So far, so good.  But as a University it would fail completely at one point: it would not have any students.  The distinction between student and faculty would simply not be one that Seminars University could recognize.  Rather, all of its faculty would also be all of its students, and vice versa. Think of it: no tuition, no admissions, no athletics, only discourse, night and day, and then publications on paper and the web.  Not anything like the Institute for Advanced Studies, even so.  Not “no students” but rather, “all students,” so that as a University it could not have any fixed schools, nor departments nor titles, only scholarship, discourse and the pleasure of mutual disagreement without rancor, and with wine. May I say from the vantage point of a man on his back with his foot in the air, I think Columbia University is fortunate not to have to compete with Seminars University, but rather to simply have the obligation to keep the University Seminars warm and cozy, and to share in our discussions going forth.Enjoy the evening.Bob Pollack