The Greek attributes that brought Columbia University to Athens

The head of the respected American institution’s newly established Global Center in the capital, Stefanos Gandolfo, talks to Kathimerini

The Greek attributes that brought Columbia University to Athens

Amman, Beijing, Istanbul, Mumbai, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Tel Aviv, Tunis: The list of cities where New York’s Columbia University has developed its so-called Global Centers is indeed impressive – and it just became even longer, with the addition of Athens. 

The main objective accomplished by this initiative is to expand the American university’s reach, with the largest possible coverage of all the main regions. What they do is host Columbia students and academics who are participating in academic or research programs in the host city, contribute to the development of collaborative initiatives with local universities, and, third, organize activities, lectures, seminars, conferences etc, hence contributing to the public dialogue of each host city or country. 

the-greek-attributes-that-brought-columbia-university-to-athens0“There were several reasons why such a center was created here,” Stefanos Gandolfo, who will be heading the newly established Columbia Global Center Athens, tells Kathimerini.

“We usually describe Greece as a great place to come study because of the sun, the beaches and so forth. But it also has some other, more important attributes. To begin with, we have excellent universities with very good academics, so there’s fertile ground here to cultivate educational partnerships. We also have certain elements like freedom of speech and expression which cannot be taken as a given in other countries in this neighborhood. We have security and peace, which is also not the case across the broader region. And last, but not least, we belong to the European family, so anyone working with a Greek university has access to European programs and resources,” says Gandolfo, listing Athens’ assets.

All together, these assets paint a very attractive picture of Greece both for the Columbia community and for other universities in America and beyond that are interested in developing collaborative relationships with their Greek counterparts.

Gandolfo also believes that the Columbia Global Center “can contribute to making the Greek academic community more extroverted, and serve as a beacon to bring other universities to Greece, thus helping put the country on the international academic map.”

The result of talks between the American university and the Greek Ministry of Culture, the Columbia Global Center Athens will be situated in a recently renovated historic neoclassical building on Nikis Street in the downtown Syntagma area that served as the residence of the late prime minister Alexandros Diomedes (1875-1950), a bookshop and even as a center of alternative medicine.

It will be run by a dynamic team headed by Gandolfo, while a committee of Columbia professors (Greeks or others carrying out research in Greece) will act in a consultative capacity with the aim of developing collaborative relationships with various Greek universities.

‘We have excellent universities with very good academics, so there’s fertile ground here to cultivate educational partnerships’

Columbia already has a collaboration with the National Technical University of Athens at the postgraduate level, while a few months ago, a cooperation agreement was signed between its Weatherhead East Asian Institute (WEAI) and Panteion University’s Institute of International Relations.

“The Global Center facilitates such collaborations because it can host and house Columbia students in Athens, as well as help them design their studies program,” says Gandolfo, whose chief area of academic interest is Asia studies.

“China has a significant presence in Greece and the fact that we do not have a well-developed understanding of the country here makes creating a more dynamic academic community dedicated to studying it all that more worthwhile,” he adds.

Having studied economics and philosophy at Yale and Chinese philosophy at the University of Beijing, and having a PhD in the organization of knowledge in pre-modern China from Oxford, the 33-year-old Greek academic also served as a special adviser to Greece’s minister of state in drafting legislation for the protection of the rights of disabled people, while working with the Greek Education Ministry in shaping its policy on outreach to foreign universities. He also teaches at the University of Piraeus, and if all this looks like a lot of different areas, this is precisely what is needed from the director of the Columbia Global Center Athens, which serves such a diverse range of objectives and fields.

Greece, adds Gandolfo, is also at the forefront in a series of critical fields of knowledge, which constitute the five main areas of activity of the center.

“When you talk about Greece abroad, everyone thinks of classical studies and archaeology, which are obviously an integral part of our mission,” says the director of the center, which recently organized an event on illegal antiquities smuggling. “But we also have a lot of experience and an enormous amount of knowledge – as well as the ability to produce new knowledge – in areas where Greece doesn’t immediately spring to mind as a good location to study them. Yet, we know from experts that Greece has such experience of climate change, the refugee crisis, public health, innovation and entrepreneurship that this could serve as a basis for further researching and developing these areas.”

Medical research

In terms of public health, more specifically, the center recently launched a program in cooperation with the Columbia School of Nursing, with the aim of providing additional specialization to its students in caring for patients belonging to vulnerable social groups. The center in Athens also provides a research scholarship for Greek oncologists studying cancers that affect children, so that they can carry out their research at the Columbia Medical School. 

Gandolfo adds that actions combining different fields will also be developed, such as climate change with public health and migration. “What we want is for this effort to have an impact, to make a meaningful contribution to the community and to the stakeholders and to attract many different audiences to the center which may not, traditionally, have considered going to a foreign university from America. Young men and women from refugee environments, for example, or professionals working in areas that we are also focus on or students from public schools. We want a center that is open to as many people as possible,” he says.

The center will have a rich program of lectures, conferences and events (like another recent one, on the impact of Western sanctions against Russia). It is also expected to have a research and study area with access to Columbia’s entire digital archive, while a library will be created around a specific theme which will be decided in consultation with the local academic community. 

‘Thinking and doing’

Will the Athens endeavor be imbued with any aspect of Chinese philosophy, of which Gandolfo is such an expert? “As far as collaborations are concerned, the motto at Columbia is ‘Thinking and doing,’ which is an eminently Chinese way of thinking,” he says. “There’s a philosophical concept which means the ‘union of knowledge and action,’ which was developed by one of China’s pre-eminent philosophers from the 15th century. We could say that he was the [Soren] Kierkegaard of China, and he was pondering the main question in Chinese philosophy, as posed by Confucius in 500 BC, and that was on how humans can reach a state of perfection. The answer, according to Wang Yangming, is that studying and reflecting on the ancient texts is not enough; we need to bring them into the present reality and act according to their tenets, so that theoretical knowledge and practice are unified. The program for nurses or that for oncologists closely combine the theoretical with the practical. LIkewise, the center’s other programs will bring the elements of thought and action closer.” 

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