You enter Columbia University through a large open gate in the middle of 116e street, at the intersection with Broadway. A double avenue of trees leads to an esplanade of lawns. On the left, a neo-Greek temple, seat of the “principal” of the university. To the right, a massive colonnaded library.
In New York, the Columbia campus is the largest private space open to the public. Up in Manhattan at 168e street one can find the medical university. Even higher, on the same metro line, at 218e street, students benefit from sports facilities.
Columbia is one of eight major universities on the east coast of the United States that make up the Ivy League (1). They attract excellence from students and global researchers. Soulaymane Kachani is one of them. He is vice-dean of the engineering faculty. Initially, it was a product of French excellence. Moroccan by origin, he did his preparatory classes at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris before joining the École Centrale, then pursuing a doctorate at the Massachusetts institute of technology (MIT).
“We live in an ultra-competitive world. Yesterday, French engineers created the nuclear power plants and contributed to the Ariane rocket. At the time, it was enough to be an engineer. Today, to be at the cutting edge, it is more and more necessary to undertake a doctorate. Too many French graduates still consider that the learning of knowledge stops with the preparation for the grandes écoles ”, he believes.
Travel the world for resources
Soulaymane Kachani travels the world to “sell” Columbia, with a slogan: “An Ivy League campus in the heart of New York”. He has just returned from a tour of eight Asian countries in two weeks. At each stage, his schedule includes a breakfast with Columbia alumni, the “alumni,” to raise funds, presentations to students from handpicked local universities – some will be invited to a cocktail party -, dinners with “young elders”, to whom Soulaymane Kachani will give news of the campus.
“Unlike the great French engineering schools, in the United States, we must find our own resources, particularly with“ alumni ”. As a result, we have a more aggressive, more creative approach and more attentive to businesses. “
The problem is not to find candidates for the cycle of “graduates” (masters). Columbia is overwhelmed by demands from abroad. “Applications increase from 20% to 40% each year. About half of these applicants come from China. They are funded by their families ”, explique Soulaymane Kachani.
A good reputation that pays off
A year of teaching at Columbia costs the student $ 60,000 (48,000 euros). Private scholarships are available for certain students: those in need, but also the brightest ones that the universities compete for. “Finding resources is a real problem. If we found more, we could launch some fabulous projects ” sums up Columbia Principal John Coatsworth from his comfortable, Anglo-Saxon style desk.
“Only 12% of our resources come from income from our asset portfolio. The proportion is 30% to 40% for Harvard University. The tuition fees collected from our students cover 40% of our budget. The annual contribution of our alumni is $ 500 million. The neuroscience research center was built thanks to them. “
Columbia’s financial strike force is impressive. It allows you to buy the best equipment and seduce the best teachers. “Reputation is what professors hold dearest. What they ask us is to help them to facilitate their research, to increase the reputation of the university ”, summarizes Soulaymane Kachani.
Creativity and ambition favored
On the other hand, the level of students is less impressive to those who come from large French schools such as Polytechnique or Normale Supérieure. Featured by Columbia as its ” brand “, the common core of general subjects of the first two years of the “undergraduate” cycle is rather “A catch-up of knowledge which has not acquired in a low level American secondary cycle ”, estimates a Polytechnic student who spent a year at Columbia.
Nina, a student at Normale, finishes an exchange with the American university. She observes that “The students here have a much more desecrated relationship with the text. They can dare to say that they “love”(Like) Merleau-Ponty. Discussions in progress are freer and more numerous. The ages and backgrounds of the students are more varied than in France. The teachers seem to me to be much more lenient in their notation. I’ve never seen a job rated lower than B, on a scale from A to F. ”
As for teachers, Soulaymane Kachani compares the two teaching systems. “In France, selection through mathematics is still predominant. In the United States, the system fosters creativity, initiative and ambition. “
At Columbia, the teaching principle is not to impart technical skills for a job. “Here, students gain the flexibility that will allow them to respond to changes, explique John Coatsworth. In their professional life, students will be forced to reinvent themselves, at one point or another. It is not enough to pass on simple professional skills. They will quickly become obsolete. It is about giving an education that allows to apprehend modernity, to be optimistic and to find new paths. Our students are not at all anxious. Rather, I find they are particularly happy here. “
International at the heart of the path of excellence
That said, the requirement is important. For each quotation, students should state its exact origin, to the nearest page. At the beginning of the year, teachers must produce a ” syllabus ». “To teach, I was asked for a detailed plan of the 14 sessions I have to teach and the bibliography students are expected to read before my class, week by week. This changes the way of teaching, when, in front of you, the students have already documented themselves on the subject ”, explains Alessia Lefébure, director of the Alliance program at Columbia.
Previously, she spent ten years in Asia for Sciences-Po, including five years in China. She notices that over there “Students constantly referred to Ivy League universities. They all wanted to come here ”. For her, who built the agreements between Columbia and several French universities, “International is at the heart of a student’s path of excellence: the questions he will have to settle in his professional life will be global”.
Columbia operates its brand around the world. It has created “global centers” to consolidate its research activities in Beijing, Bombay, Paris, Amman, Istanbul, Nairobi, Santiago de Chile. She develops programs for executives around the world.
Chinese business leaders will be able to take training from Columbia, including two weeks in Beijing and one in New York. It will cost them 21,000 euros. They will be added to the university’s prize pool to build Manhattanville, a new university research site, installed a few hundred meters above, at 129e rue.
(1) The “ivy league”, an allusion to the ivy growing on their walls, a symbol of their seniority.